Why Russians are seeing red

The Communists' parliamentary success could bring reform to a halt, argues Martin McCauley
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The Independent Online
A spectre is haunting Russia, the spectre of Communism revived. With more than half of the votes counted from Sunday's parliamentary elections, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) seems certain to become the leading party in Russia's lower house, the Duma. Its sister party in the countryside, the Agrarian Party, is also doing very well: the new Duma could well be one-third Communist.

As has happened virtually every other Eastern European country, the electoral success of the Communist Party is a protest against the economic pain of the past five years. The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernyomyrdin, and his government have failed dismally to convey any sense of hope to voters that pain today will become joy tomorrow. And that was bound to have consequences at the polls, given that 70 per cent of the population have seen their living standards halved since 1991.

Market reforms always tend to benefit the young and those with technical and marketable skills. The general feeling is that anyone over 45 who is without a job will find it very difficult to get one in future, in a market economy. So the Communists have found ready support among the over-35s.

And the party has played blatantly on those popular fears. It accuses the government of forgetting about the social and human dimension in the rush to a market economy. It has promised pensioners higher pensions, workers a job, patriots a great Russia, the religious a greater role for the church, and the young a bright future (which promise the young, by and large, don't believe).

This wish list will be impossible to deliver. Not least because the Communists have no coherent economic policy, having, as it does, to encompass a hopelessly broad range of views. These vary from the economic pragmatism of the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, in reality a social democratic agenda with the acceptance of a regulated market, to more hard-line Communists who would like to see renationalisation of privatised companies, and economic power regulated by the state - in other words, by them.

Come January, the Communists will be seeking to use the Duma to draft and pass laws to increase social benefits, job security, pension rights and so on. Their aim is tactical: to force President Yeltsin to veto their legislation, thereby presenting the party as the protector of the Russian people and providing it with valuable ammunition for the all-important presidential election in June 1996.

While the Duma itself has virtually no power, the Communists still need a parliamentary majority to pass their legislation, which means they will need to seek tactical short-term alliances with various other groups in the Duma.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats, the nationalists everyone abroad loves to hate, have done much better than expected. A Communist-nationalist alliance would have a majority in parliament. But there are good reasons to think it will not happen. Both parties regard Sunday's elections as a primary for the forthcoming presidential elections. Both therefore are anxious to maintain their distinctive identities to maximise their electoral support in that contest. Moreover, the Communists have an eye on their image internationally. They wish to present themselves to the world as a modern reform party working along social-democratic lines, an aspiration that fits ill with Zhirinovsky's unsavoury reputation abroad. And third, the economic policies of the Liberal Democrats are a mish-mash of market economics and protectionism. The Communists need a coalition partner with more economic expertise.

The Congress of Russian Communities (KRO) might fit the bill. Led by the charismatic general Alexander Lebed, the KRO was formed two months ago as the acceptable face of Russian nationalism, but so far has lost out to Zhirinovsky. If the KRO feels disappointed at its own performance it may be tempted into a coalition, to gain a toehold in policy making.

The Communists have also flirted with the idea of alliance with one or other of the pro-reform parties. The most likely would be Yabloko, well- established and led by Grigory Yavlinsky, a clever economist who is highly respected in the West.

This is the most interesting option, and one that hinges almost entirely on Yavlinsky. A deal in the run-up to the presidential elections would probably involve a trade-off in which Zyuganov became president and Yavlinsky prime minister - crucially, with power to run the economy. Such an alliance would end the hopes of any pro-reform presidential candidate, and herald a moderate social-democratic regime.

Meanwhile, the pro-reform lobby must hope that the economy can deliver for their cause. GDP is expected to grow by 10 per cent next year, and the IMF is negotiating a new $9bn loan to Russia. The pro-reform lobby will be pressing Anatoly Chubais, deputy prime minister and minister for privatisation, to continue the breakneck speed of privatising larger enterprises. This at least would put a communist or nationalist president, if elected in June 1996, in a quandary. What effect would renationalisation have on the Russian economy, and especially on confidence abroad? If there were widespread renationalisation, the IMF and World Bank would be unlikely to extend loans to this new Russia.

These election results reveal how confused and angry most Russians are, and how much convincing they still need that the market path is in their interests. On these results, there is no indication that they will accept this. But in the next six months, the economy is almost certain to grow and life for some will improve. Will Russians who see others prospering believe they can join them? This is the crux of the matter.

Voters have stopped listening to President Yeltsin's rhetoric and expect hard evidence of material improvement. The irony of Russian politics is that an all-powerful president, consitutionally speaking, is at this moment powerless. Yeltsin's future, and the future of reform, depends on economic factors, not political ones.

The writer is senior lecturer in politics at the School of Slavonic Studies, University of London.