Democracy's vote of confidence: Boris Yeltsin has prevailed, but the real winners were the Russian people, says Andrew Higgins

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IT WAS not a bashful confession but a proud declaration. 'I'm a Communist,' he said, without a moment's hestitation. Ivan Shabanov was clearly a man who thought his time had come. Or rather, that it had come back.

I met him about three weeks ago in Voronezh, a grim industrial town he had run for more than a decade, first as Communist Party secretary and, more recently and far more tentatively, as chairman of the local council or soviet. A few months earlier, he had been more discreet, mouthing slogans, albeit grudgingly, about the value of sweeping economic changes. But Mr Shabanov, along with a multitude of other former and not-so-former Communist Party officials, had come out of the closet.

The tide, he reckoned (and with good reason), had turned. He gladly agreed to have his picture taken in front of an oil painting of Lenin hanging on his wall near a bookshelf stacked with 50 volumes of his collected works.

'The concrete reality is out there,' said Mr Shabanov, gesturing out of his office window towards an expanse of grey pavement called, as in nearly every Russian city, Lenin Square. 'The people are tired. How can we support policies that only make everything worse?'

It seemed a compelling, indeed unanswerable case: real incomes have plunged by nearly half since Boris Yeltsin became president; a third of Russia's population is living below the official poverty line; the removal of state subsidies catapulted prices by 25 times last year and they continue to skyrocket; the rouble has lost more than three-quarters of its value against the dollar in a year; violent crime has risen sharply; unemployment, although still rare, threatens to explode.

'If reform continues in its current form it is quite clear it will destroy everything,' predicted Mr Shabanov, repeating an argument heard time and again from members of the parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies, in Moscow. 'How can anyone support such a president?'

By all the conventional laws of political gravity, Mr Shabanov should have been right. Mr Yeltsin ought to have been clobbered in a national referendum on Sunday that asked Russia's 105 million voters to pass judgement on a president and policies which have brought little but hardship. But Mr Shabanov, and many others, were wrong.

They were wrong not because people necessarily like what Mr Yeltsin has done but because they dislike what his opponents have to offer. They are not all Communists by any means. Indeed, Mr Yeltsin's most

vituperative critics, rabble-rousing nationalists such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, can boast that they never joined the party, and take delight in pointing out that Mr Yeltsin was himself a loyal apparatchik for most of his career. Communism as a creed is dead. Even its self-confessed adherents deny wanting to drag Russia back to central planning and political repression. All they want, they say, is to preserve the 'social gains' of the Soviet era: free kindergartens, cheap housing, guaranteed jobs.

So why, given an opportunity on Sunday, did Russians not heed such seemingly moderate voices of dissent - what Mr Yeltsin has called the 'sweet-voiced singers of mild reform'? They did not listen because they did not believe them. Communism may be finished, but it is not


The first thing to remember is that Sunday's vote was not on Mr Yeltsin's referendum. He set neither the questions nor the ground rules. This was done by the Congress of People's Deputies, though Mr Yeltsin did manage to force a partial revision of dauntingly high victory thresholds.

Mr Yeltsin had wanted to ask voters a single question: do they trust the president or the congress? It is a formula that would have grossly oversimplified the complexities of Russia's political drama. But it would also have posed the one question that really matters: where should ultimate power in Russia lie?

Instead, voters faced four questions: Do you trust the president? Do you support his economic policies? Do you want early elections for the presidency? Do you want the same for parliament?

The whole exercise was designed to muddle, not solve, a power struggle that has paralysed Russia for much of the past year. And muddle there will be, particularly as Mr Yeltsin fell short of the absolute majority of the entire electorate needed to force early parliamentary elections.

The muddle, though, belongs to the politicians, not the voters. They spoke with what, in the circumstances, can only be seen as extraordinary clarity. First, they confounded predictions of massive apathy. Sixty- two per cent of all registered voters cast their ballots, far higher than the proportion that votes in most US elections. Perhaps some voted out of habit: voting in Communist elections was mandatory. Far more, though, voted because they wanted to have a say in how their country is run.

Second, they gave as clear a response as any electorate to the question of whom they trust. Mr Yeltsin won a vote of confidence from about 59 per cent of voters. This is a staggering result when you consider that he won 57 per cent of the vote at the peak of his popularity during presidential elections in 1991. Support for reform was more muted, but still a majority.

There will be arguments for months about what the results mean. Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of the Congress of People's Deputies, insists they change nothing. Alexander Rutskoi, Mr Yeltsin's erstwhile ally and running mate, has even called them a victory for the opposition.

And even if a consensus is ever reached on who won and who lost, a bigger question remains: what should be done about it? The outcome of the referendum confers moral authority but is not binding. It is little more than a gigantic and, according to Mr Khasbulatov, meaningless opinion poll.

Many people may have cast their ballots out of despair rather than hope; many may be upset with Mr Yeltsin and his frequent blunders; many may believe Mr Rutskoi when he says he has suitcases of documents proving Mr Yeltsin's closest aides are guilty of corruption. And virtually all have suffered rather than gained from free-market change.

Despite all this, a firm majority still rejected the temptation to try something else. It was certainly not because Mr Yeltsin seduced them with a dazzling campaign. His days as a stirring stump politician are over. In 1991 he toured the country tirelessly, spoke at dozens of rallies and forged a loose coalition of democratic activists into a powerful political force.

He did none of this before Sunday's referendum. His campaign was limp, grumpy and strangely out of touch with ordinary voters. He made only four brief trips to the provinces and studiously avoided the glad-handing that had been his forte in the past. Instead of rallying support, he tried to buy it, promising extra handouts to students, soldiers and pensioners. But such populist gimmicks left most people cold.

In the long term, the real victory is probably not Mr Yeltsin's. The referendum was only a staging post. As yet he has failed to form his own

political party, failed to deliver

on promises of a better life and -

despite Sunday's vote - failed to

resolve with any finality Russia's battle for power. What he has achieved is a second chance. And this is not something the Communists will ever get.

In a vast country bubbling with ethnic conflicts and only just shaking off totalitarian rule, more than 60 million voters cast their ballots. The only untoward incident throughout was the accidental death of a drunken returning officer in Irkutsk. It was a remarkable achievement for a country that is said to be incapable of governing itself and in the process of falling apart. The victory belongs to Russian voters.

(Photograph omitted)