The impressive performance of the Unity party in Russia’s parliamentary election this week suggests there is a lucid, cagey mind at work in the Kremlin. It may belong to Russian President Boris Yeltsin or it may not. But it seems to be focused less on genuine reform than political power.
The strong second-place win for the Kremlin-backed Unity party, headed by the man Mr. Yeltsin named premier, comes against a backdrop of questionable, even appalling, decisions from the Kremlin. Up until recently, many observers had speculated, for example, that Mr. Yeltsin was probably either drunk, physically ill, or mentally incapacitated when in August he fired his fourth prime minister in 18 months and appointed Vladimir Putin as premier. Likewise during Mr. Yeltsin’s rule, Moscow’s ongoing military campaign against Chechnya drew international alarm, as the world watched Russians repeatedly attack civilian targets in the region.
As unorthodox or genocidal as those decisions may have been, they have proved to be resoundingly effective politically at least in the medium-term. The Chechen war has wide approval among Russians, and Mr. Putin has soared in popularity as a result. Mr. Putin’s popularity has translated into widespread support for the Kremlin-backed Unity party.
With 98 percent of the ballots from Sunday’s election counted, Unity had 23 percent of the vote, barely behind the Communists, with 24 percent. The formerly popular Fatherland-All Russia, led by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, fared badly after the Kremlin launched a vicious campaign against the party through state-run media. The party picked up 13 percent of the vote. The Union of Right Forces, which supports economic reform, did much better than expected, winning 8.6 percent, after Mr. Putin’s endorsement of the party. The Yabloko party, led by liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, meanwhile, won about 6 percent.
The strong showing of Unity, Fatherland and other centrist though not necessarily pro-Western political parties has prompted many Russian experts to predict new policies and reforms to come. Many observers expect the new Parliament to push through legislation, such as simplifying the tax code and making taxes less burdensome in order to improve compliance.
Some skepticism is in order, though. It is still uncertain how much cooperation the Kremlin will win from the other centrist parties in Parliament that are vying for power. Lawmakers from the Fatherland-All Russia party could be feeling particularly bitter, after the Kremlin-orchestrated attack on their party. It is unclear, furthermore, how committed the Kremlin itself is to these reforms. The administration’s attack on the Fatherland party reflects badly on its resolve to push through reform legislation, since the party isn’t an ideological opponent. Clearly, the Yeltsin administration is still primarily interested in bolstering its own power, by any means, rather than advancing policies.
Furthermore, the election was a vote of confidence for Mr. Putin but not necessarily for economic reform. The New York Times recently cited a poll showing that 44 percent of Russian respondents said the country will always need a “strong hand” a powerful central government while another 22 percent said the country needs that “strong hand” in these trying times. Mr. Putin is that strong hand for the Russians. He has crushed Chechen terrorists and bullied Western leaders that criticize the Chechen war, reminding them that Russia has a “nuclear shield.”
It is too premature, though, to make predictions concerning the presidential elections scheduled in June. Clearly Sunday’s election demonstrates that Mr. Putin’s current popularity is quite strong. If Mr. Putin can hold on to that base of support, he would surely win in June. But perhaps the calculating mind in the Kremlin should keep in mind that in Russia much could change in six months. If the military campaign in Chechnya were to worsen for Russia, Mr. Putin could see his popularity evaporate and Mr. Yeltsin would be left out of time to appoint a new premier.