Yeltsin’s Reelection 10 Years On

Amid critics accusing the Putin government of “backsliding” from democracy and his officials’ denials crouched in semantic differences between “managed” and sovereign” democracy, the Moscow News brings us back to the “simpler” times of the Russian Presidential election of 1996. The contest pitted incumbent Boris Yeltsin against Communist Party head Gennady Ziuganov. The election was close with Yeltsin receiving 35 percent of the vote and Ziuganov closely trailing with 32 percent. The results produced instant astonishment and subsequent conspiracy theories that Ziuganov’s victory was usurped by the “family”, a group of oligarchs that included now exiled Boris Berezovsky. After all, Yeltsin’s approval rating at the time was a dismal 8 percent. So low that even the fear of a Communist resurgence was viewed as not enough to get him reelected.

That belief proved to be false. The fact that Yeltsin even got 35 percent is seen as a political miracle even if it was aided by machinations. Part of it was utilizing a virtually unlimited war chest and adopting Western campaign styles that even sought the services of MTV. MTV subsequently declined because the network didn’t think Yeltsin had a ghost’s of a chance. This of course didn’t stop Berezovsky from launching an MTV style campaign on his ORT Channel 1 using the slogan “Vote or Lose,” a variation of the MTV/Clinton 1992 campaign slogan “Choose or Lose”.

The strategy worked and a runoff was announced. Then according to the Moscow News, then some strange occurrences happened:

In a notorious set-up just days after [the runoff was announced], security agents arrested two top campaign officials, Sergei Lisovsky and Arkady Yevstafiyev, on accusations of trying to carry a box filled with cash out of the Government Building. The move, allegedly organized by FSB head Mikhail Barsukov and Yeltsin’s bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, was seen as an attempt to delay the elections and prevent Gennady Ziuganov from winning. Days later, Yeltsin fired both Barsukov and Korzhakov. In a final “practically impossible” victory, Yeltsin, who was too ill for public appearances, was re-elected with a surprising 54 percent, against Ziuganov’s 40. Some claimed people who voted for Alexander Lebed, another popular contender, in the first round, gave their votes to Yeltsin in the second.

Who and what was behind this “miracle”? Answers remain controversial. However, according to an instrumental member of Yeltsin’s reelection staff and now president of Politika Foundation, to the victor goes the spoils. “There were probably falsifications,” he told Moskovskie Novosti this week. “In any case, state resources were used to their full capacity…. I was very satisfied that we had accomplished something that was practically impossible.”