First published Strategic Culture Foundation

(This is the second of a two-part series on the 1996 Russian presidential election. They are based on notes I made at the time in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. I was an accredited observer in both rounds in Moscow Oblast. A reporter accompanied me on the first round and a program appeared on CBC Newsworld, but I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.)

The first round results had Yeltsin edging Zyuganov and Lebed running a strong third. While I got the placing of the top two wrong I did correctly understand Zyuganov’s inability to build on his December vote. But, Zyuganov had hardly been one of the CPSU’s stars: his highest position being in the central propaganda department, a place where they put the clunkers. The strong showing of Aleksandr Lebed was significant. What seems to have happened is that the people whom I, based on past practice, expected to swell Zhirinovskiy’s poll figures, voted for him instead. Likewise, Yavlinskiy slipped badly: clearly many of his voters went over to Yeltsin, understanding that a vote for him was wasted; the beginning of the end for him: a recent poll shows that he and his Yabloko party have completely faded from the political scene. But what I had got right was the central reality that the majority didn’t want the communists back and they understood that to vote for anyone but Yeltsin was effectively to vote for Zyuganov. The reality that Yeltsin was unpopular and that conditions were miserable for most Russians had no effect on this decision. Neither did American election wizards nor flashy rock concerts.

Anyway, Lebed was the kingmaker and a deal was swiftly made. Yeltsin replaced Pavel Grachev as Defence Minister with Lebed’s nominee; Lebed himself was appointed Secretary of the Security Council of Russia. His reasons for supporting Yeltsin were strikingly similar to my villager’s: “I was facing two ideas – an old one that has shed lots of blood and a new one which is being implemented very badly at the moment but has a future. I have chosen the new idea”.

In fact, the election results were rather sophisticated. The electorate essentially told Yeltsin that he was re-elected but there must be more order, less corruption and the war in Chechnya must be stopped. And, to a considerable extent, they got what they wanted. Lebed stopped the war and, eventually, we got to Putin and his team. The better future did run through that 1996 choice.

After the first round results it was a matter of calculating whose votes would go where in the second round. I made a simple Excel program in which I played with various assumptions and I concluded that the probability of Yeltsin’s second round victory was pretty robust. Lebed’s support for Yeltsin was a major plus and now the anti-communist vote (“reformers” as they were simple-mindedly labelled in the West) had the choice of staying home and risking a communist return, or holding their noses and voting Yeltsin. A VTsIOM poll, taken before Lebed’s appointment, showed agreement with my assessment of movement from supporters of their candidate to Yeltsin in the second round: 39% of Lebed’s (14% to Zyuganov); 51% percent of Yavlinskiy’s (6% to Zyuganov); 14% of Zhirinovskiy’s (25% percent to Zyuganov).

The whole point is that, whatever people may think today,

you didn’t have to like Yeltsin to vote for him.

With respect to considerations of whether the vote was fraudulent there are some reflections to be made. While I do not rule out small-scale shaving of numbers, the objective realities were that Zyuganov’s support was high but flat and the anti-communists would unite around someone. A fact, that many today are unwilling to accept, is that the majority did not want the communists back. Therefore a communist defeat was always probable and the question was who would be the one to defeat them. In the absence of a “third force”, Yeltsin was the most likely beneficiary. No need for fakery or American wizardry.

The second vote on 3 July met everyone’s expectations with Yeltsin four points over 50% and Zyuganov stuck at 40.7%. The remainder ticked the “Against all” box.

In retrospect the election was a supremely important moment in post-USSR Russian history because it opened a path that has proved to be successful. In 1996 there were two opposing stories about recent Russian history. I wrote a report arguing that the election had shown that the majority favoured one of the stories. I am rather interested that today the losing story has gained at least partial acceptance in the West. And some Russians never abandoned it. And strange that is: if you approve of the Putin Team, as most Russians do, the real world reality is that Putin would not have appeared had the 1996 vote gone the other way. But politics are often more passionate than rational.

Since the breakup of the USSR, the Russian opposition had a consistent opinion that Yeltsin was not the legitimate head of a legitimate state: he had been elected in 1991 as president of a Russia which was part of the USSR; he was one of the trio that had broken up the USSR; he prolonged his rule by extra-constitutional means including violence; his so-called reforms were the robbery of the common wealth. The electorate knew this and Yeltsin and his gang could not survive a fair election. The theory was bolstered by the success of opposition parties in the elections after 1991. The strong version was that the whole process had been orchestrated by Russia’s enemies in the West and that Gorbachev and Yeltsin were the accomplices or dupes of these foreign conspirators. It was a story which explained how the – to them – popular and successful USSR had so quickly collapsed. This story was the glue that held together an opposition at whose rallies could be seen posters of both Nikolay II and his murderer.

Therefore the 1996 presidential election could be seen as a contest over the correct interpretation of the “October events” of 1993. The opposition claimed that the defenders of constitutional order were destroyed by an unconstitutional regime; Yeltsin’s supporters maintained that constitutional order, faced with an armed revolt, took forceful but legal measures. The election was an opportunity for the people to choose one or the other. The opposition believed that the Yeltsin gang could not afford to lose and therefore would never risk a free election. This notion took a beating: Yeltsin did have the courage to risk election and he won. The population did not buy the opposition historiography; they decided that Yeltsin had been the legitimate head of a legitimate state. Which is not to say that they approved of all that he did or even liked him very much. As argued above, Yeltsin was the lesser evil.

The 1996 election was highly significant: it returned legitimacy to the government. A quarter of a century later, Putin, chosen by Yeltsin himself, is undeniably the legitimate president of all the Russias.

It is, however, interesting to see in 2021, references to Yeltsin’s having destroyed Russia’s democracy in October 1993. That is, in my opinion, a ridiculously over-simplifed view.

The October crisis of 1993 had several causes and those most remembered are the differences grounded in opposition to the Yeltsin team’s policy which, in essence, was the uprooting of the communist structure accompanied by an orgy of looting and the destruction of people’s savings and livelihoods. A frightful and lawless time for most.

But there was a structural cause which made a struggle inevitable. Gorbachev’s 1988 design to democratise the USSR involved a Congress of Peoples’ Deputies which elected a sitting legislature, the Supreme Soviet; that body elected a chairman who would be the leader of the country. And so, through 1989, Gorbachev chaired the meetings of the Supreme Soviet. As time went on, however, it became evident that the country’s leader could not do what he had to while refereeing endless debates. It also became clear that the Supreme Soviet was too big and too prone to mere talk. In 1990 the system was changed: the Supreme Soviet continued to exist but grafted onto it was an executive presidency. Gorbachev became president and his deputy became speaker of the Supreme Soviet. Exactly the same process was followed in the RSFSR: a Russian Congress, Supreme Soviet and Boris Yeltsin as speaker. Yeltsin learned what Gorbachev had and in 1991 the Russian Federation adopted a presidential system; Yeltsin became president and deputy speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov became speaker.

This solved the problem of ensuring a powerful executive to do all the unpopular things that had to be done but, in doing so, created another problem: which was supreme? The Congress of Peoples’ Deputies had been elected to be the nation’s sovereign power, the Supreme Soviet its daily manifestation and its speaker the leader of the country. Then these powers were given to the president. So there were two supreme powers, two first citizens and any act by one actor which was opposed by the other could be deemed unconstitutional. Thus, as Yeltsin was determined to act, most of his actions were considered unconstitutional by partisans of the Supreme Soviet; to Yeltsin’s side it was they who were unconstitutional.

It was dual power. And there are only two ways to settle a dual problem condition. If one or both of the powers agrees to step down, a peaceful resolution is possible. If not, it’s war. In England in the 1600s the struggle was between King and Parliament; the issue was settled over forty years by civil war, regicide, dictatorship, restoration of a limited monarchy, a second overthrow of the king and a second and more limited monarchy. In the USA the question was whether states which had created the union could leave it; a four-year war determined that they could not. And so, Russia, like the other two, fought it out in October 1993 with, it should be noted, much less blood shed. In December a new Constitution formalised the supremacy of the Russian president. In October the opposition to Russian President Yeltsin was led by his successor as chair of the Supreme Soviet Ruslan Khasbulatov and his Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoy. Exactly the same thing had happened in the August 1991 coup attempt against USSR President Gorbachev which was was led by Anatoliy Lukyanov (his successor as chair of the Supreme Soviet) and Gennadiy Yanayev his Vice-President. Yes there were policy disputes, but dual power was the root cause.

In conclusion:

  • The 1996 presidential election was an immensely important turning point in post-USSR Russian history; it made possible what we have in 2021.
  • My first essay argued that Yeltsin won because the majority did not want the communists back and Zyuganov could not extend his appeal past his base. The stagnation of Zyuganov’s support and the gradual migration over to Yeltsin of other peoples’ support was clearly shown by the many contemporary polls. If anything, Betaneli’s polls made the argument more compellingly because his findings, starting so far away from the others’, converged with them at the end. American election whiz kids had nothing to do with this: at most they might have made a bit of difference in the margins; they “rescued” nothing.
  • My second piece argued that the election resolved the legitimacy argument and the historiographical dispute in Yeltsin’s favour. The executive president, not the speaker of the Supreme Soviet/parliament, was Russia’s first citizen. This has endured.

To repeat Lebed and my villager: the one way had been exhausted, so they gave the other – dismal as it had been – a chance. And they were correct: it is very hard to see how one could get to today’s Russia – pretty successful by any measurement and growing more so – had Zyuganov won the 1996 election.

(As a postscript to illustrate the stagnation of Russian politics, of the top five of 1996, Yeltsin is dead, Zyuganov is still head of the KPRF, Lebed is dead, Yavlinskiy is still around but no longer head of Yabloko, Zhirinovskiy is still the head of the LDPR. Of the other players, Yeltsin, Lukyanov and Yanayev are dead and Gorbachev, Rutskoy and Khasbulatov still alive. Putin is the new boy.)

Unfortunately the American boasting (I have a memory – I was Canada’s representative on the G7 group that met monthly – that we rather laughed at their claims) and subsequent stories have kept alive the notion that the election was fixed, that Zyuganov really would have won and that the opposition view of Yeltsin the usurper who used tanks to destroy Russia’s nascent democracy was correct.

It’s curious to see that story still living 25 years after. Even among those who support the future made possible by that 1996 turning point.