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Russian election too close to call, scholars say
STANFORD -- Attention, gamblers: Stanford's experts on Russian politics say it's safe to bet that Boris Yeltsin and communist Gennadi Zyuganov will finish in the top two places in Russia's upcoming presidential election.
If you're betting on either one in the run-off, however, there are no sure things.
In fact, not one of five campus experts who spoke at a May 31 forum on Russian elections was willing to predict that if Yeltsin loses, he actually would give up power. And don't bet that the United States has worked out how it will react to a communist victory. When asked what the U.S. strategy is, political scientist Mike McFaul said the Clinton administration claims it has one but that he has seen no evidence of it. Political scientist Condoleezza Rice quipped that the policy is to "stay in bed the next day."
America's foreign policy elite from the officials who run policy in the federal government to the news media who report on it and the academic experts who advise both all took heat during the discussion for misreading the political climate in Russia. The evening discussion, sponsored by the Center for Russian and East European Studies, drew a number of interested residents from surrounding communities, including Russian and Eastern European immigrants, and Stanford students and faculty.
Political scientist Gail Lapidus criticized Western leaders for failing to fully understand the political forces that have driven Yeltsin to sound more totalitarian and anti-Western as the election approaches. McFaul criticized "groupthink" in Washington's political and media circles that now envisions a Yeltsin landslide. And a member of the audience who travels frequently to Russia questioned whether academic experts know much either, because, she alleged, most of them spend their time interacting with Russia's isolated elites in Moscow.
Professor and former Secretary of State George Shultz, a member of the audience, asked panelists if they thought Western leaders had made a mistake by offering Russian voters "a bribe" on behalf of Yeltsin. The bribe is in the form of promises of a no-strings-attached International Monetary Fund loan, Shultz contended.
McFaul, who has lived four of the last 10 years in Moscow and has been privy to the inside workings of Yeltsin's campaign in particular, responded that "there is no way that activity is going to buy votes" and that the no-strings-attached loan will only create "inflation and all kinds of problems" after the election.
Lapidus, a longtime Soviet political specialist who is a scholar at the Institute for International Studies and a former professor at the University of California-Berkeley, said the loan situation was complicated by the fact that Western leaders repeatedly have "identified with economic reforms without recognizing the extent to which the reforms have been hijacked by economic cartels. We are making a great mistake by not speaking as though we are as concerned about issues surrounding the social safety net" in Russia.
Lapidus said some of the conditions in existing IMF loans also have created political problems for Yeltsin, by forcing his government to withhold workers' paychecks.
Although the scholars were not willing to predict a winner, they all expressed concern about the longer-term chances for democracy in Russia.
John Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who will serve as an international election monitor, said "some people believe Yeltsin will claim election fraud and won't step down" if his opponent ultimately wins the expected run-off, which could be held as early as July. The communists' options would then include waiting for Yeltsin's poor health to deteriorate further or trying to use disaffection in the military to oust him.
Either Yeltsin or Zyuganov, Dunlop said, "will likely move the country in an authoritarian direction. Very little separates them."
In contrast, Lapidus emphasized the two candidates' differences and insisted it does matter who wins. Democracy is part of the self-identity of Yeltsin and his allies but not of the Zyuganov camp, she said. Zyuganov's protégés do not understand capitalism or why the Soviet Union's command economy failed, which could lead them to take actions that inadvertently trigger economic crises.
Rice, an expert on the military and Russia who served as President Bush's chief adviser on the Soviet Union, said the once-proud 5-million-member army is a "ticking time bomb" with the potential to trigger civil war.
Many soldiers have gone without pay for 15 months and are scared, she said. Largely orphaned in the hinterlands by their government, some are even malnourished and are fighting as mercenaries on both sides in various conflicts. If any political faction tries to appeal to them to overthrow the government, she said, it would split the army and "that might be a precondition of civil war." Because of the situation, "the military budget will go up, no matter who wins the election," she said.
One reason the army has not tried a takeover yet, said Gregory Freidin, a Slavic scholar who observes politics as part of Russian culture, is that "there is nothing to take over." In that same vein, McFaul predicted that if Zyuganov wins, the communists will stage a few "show trials," but they will not make a serious attempt to re-nationalize industries. Most Soviet enterprises are in the bankrupt hands of their former managers, he said, and nationalizing them alone won't produce wages for workers.
On the optimistic side, McFaul stressed that the elections in Russia are working to force the candidates to react to the demands of the electorate. If they were not, he said, Yeltsin would not have announced the ceasefire in Chechnya this past week.
"I took a lot of heat from colleagues" last December for saying that election would not be a communist rout. Now, he said, he is out of step again, because he doesn't think the polls show that Yeltsin is on his way to a landslide.
The polls show a remarkable similarity to American political polls, McFaul said, which tend to show that over the course of a campaign, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates gradually "consolidate" their traditional supporters. These ideologically oriented voters show up as increases in a candidate's poll numbers, but they do not represent any gain in the group he or she has to win over, which are the disaffected, non-ideological group that ultimately decides the election. These people usually do not express a preference until the last few weeks before an election, and often don't decide if they will vote at all until the last few days.
Yeltsin has a good campaign strategy, McFaul contended, but he has not yet made progress with this group, about 30 percent of Russia's electorate. He will need to win over a greater percentage of them than Zyuganov in a run-off, because the communist candidate will pick up more votes from other candidates in the original field.
McFaul said public opinion polls indicate that the swing group is most interested in stability. How they vote depends on who they think can provide more of it in the future, not in the past.
Valerie Kockelman, a Palo Alto resident who travels frequently to Russia and conducts her own informal polls sitting on park benches and on trains, said her polls agreed with McFaul's reading of the professional polls, but she disputed Lapidus' claim that it makes a difference who wins. The voters she has talked to don't think it will make much difference in their daily lives. Rather than precipitating a crisis, she said, a switch to the communists will be a more modest change.
The Communist Party will fade from the scene in a decade, McFaul predicted, because the average age of the consistent communist voters is 59. The problem for democracy, he said, is that the totalitarian-oriented parties are better organized to fill the vacuum than are the democrats. Lapidus agreed, noting that in Eastern Europe, democracy is associated in people's minds with the reassertion of nationalism, whereas in Russia, it is associated with the loss of their state, the Soviet Union.
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