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A Turning Point? : Today's Russian presidential election is about more than personalities--it's also about personal security : Yeltsin's Confidence May Rest on Sand

June 16, 1996|Steven Merritt Miner | Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of Russian history at Ohio University, is a contributor to "The Diplomats" (Princeton University). He is working on a book, "Selling Stalin," about Soviet propaganda

ATHENS, OHIO — As with so much in Russian politics and history, today's presidential election is an enigma. Although Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has claimed he will win more than half the vote, thereby avoiding the need for a second-round runoff, this may be more in the nature of bluster than accurate forecasting.

Russian opinion polls suggest that Yeltsin leads his closest rival, Communist Gennady A. Zyuganov, by seven to 20 percentage points, depending on which polling group one believes; but opinion surveys also indicate that, with several other candidates helping to split the vote, neither man enjoys an outright majority. Furthermore, one should be cautious in accepting Russian polls at face value.

Even in the United States, surely the most exhaustively polled population in the world, the science of opinion research is less than perfect. One needs only recall the magnitude of the 1994 electoral shift, which caught so many pollsters by surprise. Specific Russian circumstances, however, are enough to raise doubts about the veracity of public-opinion surveys in that country.

Many Russians still do not have private phones, so much polling is done door-to-door. Given Russian political history, this is scarcely a foolproof method. Authoritarian traditions run deep in Russia, and it has not been a long time since speaking openly about politics could land the average Russian in hot water. Although many are far more inclined to speak their minds than they were even five years ago, old habits of reticence die hard. Most pollsters are young and relatively privileged urbanites; naturally, many of them are either Yeltsin supporters or at least anti-Communists. It requires little imagination to understand that a cautious respondent, answering the door to a total stranger, might well express support for a sitting president, regardless of privately held views.

One crucial segment of the population that might have a decisive impact on the election, but which does not poll easily, is the rural vote. Russia is still a heavily rural nation, with some 30% of the population engaged in agriculture, as opposed to a figure of between 2% and 5% in developed nations. All indications are that Zyuganov enjoys a 2-1 lead over Yeltsin among rural voters. The electoral gap may well be even larger, given the unreliability of polls.

At first sight, this seems odd in light of recent history. In the 1930s, the Communists under Stalin carried out what amounted to a war against the peasantry, seizing private land and herding peasants into dreary, unproductive collective farms. At the time, some 10 million peasants perished in a famine engineered by the Communists for the purpose of breaking the peasants' will to resist. Throughout the remaining decades of Soviet rule, life on the collectives remained grim; villages lacked such basic services as telephones and running water, and the vast majority of rural settlements remained unconnected to the outside world by paved roads. Until the 1970s, the state restricted peasants' rights, subjecting them to different laws and restricting their movement to the cities. Once internal migration became easier, young people fled the farms for the relative abundance and opportunity of the cities.

That Yeltsin has been unable to retain the loyalty of farmers in light of this sad history must be seen as one of his greatest failures. Yet, the reasons are clear.

Yeltsin's power base has always been in the major urban centers. There, economic opportunities have increased, especially for the young and ambitious. The rural population, by contrast, is older, less educated and much less concerned about such things as intellectual freedom and the right to travel. Even worse, economic opportunities have actually constricted, as farm production has dropped by one-third since 1991.

Concerned with political struggles in the cities, Yeltsin and his men did not squarely attack rural problems until relatively late. They delayed passing legislation allowing private ownership of land; they did not try to create means for ambitious farmers to circumvent old-style regional bosses eager to thwart the growth of a private farm sector. Even more important, they did not follow the example of the last great rural reformer of czarist times, Pyotr A. Stolypin, and create a rural lending bank that would allow prospective private farmers to borrow capital for land, machinery and livestock purchases.

As a result, young people have continued to leave farms for the cities, and the remaining population is sullenly resentful of what they rightly see as Yeltsin's neglect of the countryside. Farmers might not want to see the return of the Communists, who so badly mistreated them, but they have little love for the current government, and the only realistic alternative is Zyuganov.

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