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RUSSIA'S HISTORIC VOTE | NEWS ANALYSIS

Zyuganov Erred in Courting Nationalists

Campaign: Communist challenger's strategy to broaden support base backfired.

June 17, 1996|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Just six months ago Communists and their hard-line nationalist allies polled 35% of the vote, took control of Russia's parliament and looked poised to recapture the Kremlin after 4 1/2 years of erratic post-Soviet reform.

Gennady A. Zyuganov, the stodgy Communist apparatchik who fused his "reds" with the ultranationalist "browns," was riding what looked like an unstoppable wave to sweep President Boris N. Yeltsin from office.

But in Sunday's presidential election, the red-brown tide ebbed--dramatically and perhaps irreversibly.

Zyuganov, who was running second to Yeltsin in the field of 10 candidates, still has a chance to defeat the incumbent in a two-man runoff next month. But it appears to be a slim chance.

"We expected better results," admitted deputy campaign chief Alexei I. Podberezkin, as Zyuganov and other aides closeted themselves in their headquarters to review returns that fell short of their target in nearly every region of the country.

In days to come, the Communists are certain to denounce the way Yeltsin dominated the media and used his incumbency to maximum advantage, bleeding the treasury in an attempt to buy off every constituency he met.

But equally damaging to Zyuganov in this high-stakes battle for Russia's future, according to analysts and exit polling data, was a disastrous campaign strategy that mixed up the colors of his coalition.

Simply put, he ran too hard as a nationalist. That gamble cost him the votes of many who would have been more receptive to a Communist or socialist message. Instead of winning over more "Russia first" voters, he lost many of the ones he already had to a retired army general who is closer to Yeltsin's camp.

In much of what used to be Communist Eastern Europe, nationalists freed from Soviet rule have embraced free-market reform. What makes Russia different--and more dangerous to the West--is that many nationalists here make common cause with unreformed Communists who dream of restoring something like the Soviet Union.

Zyuganov's genius was to join those forces in a People's Patriotic Bloc that amassed 25 million votes of the 71 million cast in December, 7 million more than the democrats who supported Yeltsin's reforms.

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In the scramble to expand from that base and capture the presidency, Zyuganov had six months to reach out to a massively discontented electorate that would have made any incumbent shudder.

According to a survey of voters leaving the polls Sunday, 35% said the most important issue for them was the Yeltsin government's failure to pay salaries and pensions on time. Fifty-one percent said they lived better under communism. And a surprising 67% opposed Yeltsin's sweeping privatization program, saying big industrial enterprises should be returned to state control.

Yet Zyuganov captured just 29% of Sunday's turnout, or about 21.5 million votes, according to the exit poll conducted for The Times and other Western media by U.S. pollster Warren Mitofsky.

"These numbers show unequivocally that there was an electorate out there for him to capture," said Michael McFaul, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.

But instead of hammering on these themes--asking voters, for example, whether they were better off than they were when Yeltsin came to power--Zyuganov urged them repeatedly to make a choice, in his words, between restoring "a great empire or further breakup of the country and its final transformation into a Western colony."

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McFaul concluded: "They tried to reach beyond their constituency with that nationalist rhetoric rather than social democratic rhetoric. The numbers show they miscalculated. That was the wrong way to go."

According to the polling data, the Communist-led bloc suffered its biggest setbacks in rural areas, where it got 55% of the vote last winter and just 37% on Sunday.

The bloc was reduced to a manageable minority--getting the 20 million or so votes that Communists have traditionally captured by themselves, without the nationalists added in, in previous post-Soviet elections in Russia.

Meanwhile, many voters with strong nationalist views defected from Zyuganov and backed other candidates, particularly retired army Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, who had gained a reputation for defending ethnic Russians when he commanded Russian troops in the now-independent republic of Moldova.

Lebed won votes Sunday from Russian citizens stranded outside their country when the Soviet Union broke up and from voters at home looking for a face outside the political establishment.

Podberezkin said Sunday that Zyuganov would campaign aggressively before the runoff in regions where Lebed did well.

But the retired general, who got 15% of the votes counted Sunday, is more likely to endorse Yeltsin, who got 34%. In any case, Lebed voters leaving the polls Sunday were evenly split between backing Yeltsin and Zyuganov in the runoff.

Unlike the nationalists in Zyuganov's coalition, Lebed won the support of many Russians who can never forget the humiliations of living under Soviet dictatorship.

"I lived all my conscious life under the Communists," said Valery A. Yemelyanov, who cast his vote for Lebed at the village schoolhouse where he teaches in Kusalino, 130 miles north of Moscow. "They always told me where to go, what to tell my pupils and what to think. Sometimes I'm still afraid to use my own mind because it became a habit not to. I don't want to go back."

He said he will vote for Yeltsin in the runoff.

The rural teacher sits at the edge of the most telling statistic of this election. At age 46, he falls barely in the 45-and-up age bracket that gave Zyuganov 60% of his support Sunday, according to the exit poll.

If this election marks the ebbing of the Communist-nationalist tide, it may never come back, for in future presidential elections, many of those who voted for Zyuganov this time won't be around.

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