Russian politics after Chechnya

By Michael McFaul


On December 10, 1994, Russian president Boris Yeltsin ordered Russian armed forces into the Republic of Chechnya. For eight weeks thereafter, the Russian military waged a poorly organized but brutally destructive assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny.

After the deaths of an estimated 4,000 Russian soldiers, several thousand Chechen fighters, and 15,000 to 25,000 residents of Grozny--Russian and Chechen alike--Russian forces gained control of Grozny. Since Grozny's fall, Chechen fighters have moved into the mountains of Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia, where they continue to wage a guerrilla war against Russian forces. Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev, whose fighters are vastly outnumbered and are backed by no outside force, has vowed to continue to resist "Russian occupation" until the bitter end. For the first time since the war in Afghanistan, the Russian military is now engaged in a protracted battle. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, civil war rages within Russia's borders.

Dealing with the aftermath of the Chechen war will be the greatest challenge to Russian reforms over the next two years. The poor planning and shoddy performance of the Russian military coupled with insubordination at every rank exposed both the weakness of Russian armed forces and the divisions within the military. The Chechen war has threatened to undermine Russia's economic reforms as well, fueling inflation and straining the 1995 budget with an estimated cost of $5 billion, which equals 2.5 per cent of Russia's gross national product (GNP) as of March 1, 1995. The war has also undermined earlier progress in creating a new Russian federal system, as regional leaders in both republics and oblasts (large states) now seek greater autonomy from Moscow's erratic hand. Finally, the war has strained relations between Russia and the West, fueling momentum for the expansion of NATO in Europe while undermining support for aid to Russia in the United States.

Less obvious in the short run but more consequential in the long run, is the reality that the war in Chechnya has transformed the balance of political forces within Russia. Before the war, the line-up of candidates and political parties for the 1995--96 election cycle had begun to be consolidated; since the war began, old alliances have crumbled and new lines of cleavage have emerged. The repercussions of this political reshuffling remain unclear, creating even greater uncertainty about the outcome of parliamentary elections in 1995 and presidential elections in 1996. Whether these elections will even take place, in fact, is no tonger certain.


According to Kremlin officialdom, Russia was compelled to use military force against the renegade Chechen government in order to restore the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. After coming to power during the chaos of the fall of 1991, Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general, declared independence for his republic of 1.3 million people. Russia never recognized Chechnya's independence. According to official rhetoric, therefore, Moscow had to reassert its authority over Chechen territory both to secure its international borders and to protect Russian citizens terrorized by the criminal Dudayev regime.

Without question, preserving the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation was a major objective of the offensive in Chechnya. In hindsight, the second objective of "protecting" Russian citizens in Chechnya seems a bit absurd. Highlighting this first aim, however, explains neither the timing nor the method of the attack on Chechnya. Dudayev declared Chechnya's independence three years ago. Why did Yeltsin not move then to preserve Russia's territorial integrity? As for method, the Russian federal government had managed to resolve several other secessionist crises through negotiation and compromise. Why, then, did Yeltsin decide to use massive military force against Chechnya? In short, Yeltsin did not order his troops into Chechnya to save the Russian Federation. He moved against Chechnya to save his presidency.

In retrospect, such an explanation seems counterintuitive, because the war has been very unpopular. By January 1995, only 16 per cent of the Russian population supported the use of force in Chechnya, while 71 per cent opposed it. Opposition to the war translated into opposition to Yeltsin himself--in September 1994, 70 per cent of those polled disapproved of Yeltsin's performance; by january 1995, 81 per cent gave him negative marks. The logic driving the decision to invade, however flawed, anticipated exactly the opposite popular reaction.

The origin of this logic begins with the December 1993 parliamentary elections, in which three outcomes reshaped Yeltsin's political orientation. First, Russia's Choice, the pro-reform and pro-Yeltsin electoral bloc, fared miserably. While expected to win 30 to 40 per cent of the popular vote, Russia's Choice garnered only 15.5 per cent. At the same time, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic party captured almost a quarter of the popular vote. To the surprise of everyone, Zhirinovsky's extreme nationalist views, law-and-order rhetoric, and racist undertones resonated with an electorate tired of both the communist past and the "democratic" present.

The election results apparently showed Yeltsin's inner circle of advisers the need to change the president's image, rhetoric, and allies. If Yeltsin was going to win reelection in June 1996, he had to act and talk more like Zhirinovsky and less like the "democrats." The goal was not for Yeltsin to mimic Zhirinovsky, but rather for him to position himself as a candidate between Zhirinovsky and the reformers, or better yet as the candidate who personified both of these different political platforms. Soon thereafter, Yeltsin presented his first State of the Federation speech (Poslanie Prezidenta), in which he called for the strengthening of the state, highlighting first and foremost his plans to crack down on crime. Yeltsin also got tough, at least rhetorically, with his opponents--be they Latvians, NATO, or Most Bank, one of the largest privately owned Russian banks. Bombing Chechnya was the most dramatic but not the first demonstration of Yeltsin's new machismo.

A second consequence of the December 1993 elections, and a contributing factor to Yeltsin's new political orientation, was a deepening division between Yeltsin and his immediate circle of advisers on the one hand and reformist political leaders and organizations on the other. Because their political origins were quite different, the alliance between Yeltsin and the "democrats" had always been flaccid. Yeltsin rose to power as a populist, anti-corruption, anti-moscow, Communist party boss from Sverdlovsk.

Eventually, Yeltsin's maverick style clashed with the staid practices of the Communist party elite in Moscow. He was forced (quite literally, as when he was removed from the party's Politburo in 1987) to look beyond the Soviet establishment for political allies. He eventually found new comrades among the liberal, Western-oriented democratic movements that had mobilized primarily in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Urals. This powerful alliance swept Yeltsin into power in June 1991, resisted the August 1991 coup attempt, and then formed Russia's first modern noncommunist government.

Yeltsin did not order his troops into Chechnya to save the Russian Federation. He moved against Chechnya to save his presidency.

The alliance, however, never fused into one political organization. Yeltsin never joined the anti-communist coalition Democratic Russia but instead stayed "above" party politics. Morcover, tension between Yeltsin's aides from Sverdlovsk and the team of young economists around Yegor Gaidar plagued Gaidar's tenures as first deputy prime minister and prime minister. By the time of the December 1993 parliamentary elections, Yeltsin refused to endorse Gaidar's Russia's Choice, even though several of his cabinet ministers were members of this electoral bloc. After the election, the gap between these two camps widened further. Gaidar and Boris Fyodorov, the liberal finance minister, resigned from Yeltsin's government, leaving just one member of Gaidar's original team--First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais--within shouting distance of the president. Over the course of 1994, however, the president and his Kremlin advisers became even more isolated from reformist political organizations as well as the government and its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The decision to invade Chechnya was made without consulting Russia's reformist forces. Even the Russian government and the liberal presidential advisers in the Kremlin played only a marginal role in the deliberations. Yeltsin's Kremlin entourage isolated the president from all political forces opposed to the war.

A third result of the December 1993 elections with consequences for Chechnya was approval of a new constitution. Before December 1993, Moscow's relationship with constituent parts of the Russian Federation was confused and ambiguous. Between August 1991 and October 1993, several republics, including Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Chechnya, declared their independence. Russian regions such as the Urals and the Far East soon followed suit, creating even greater uncertainty about Russia's federal structure. The new constitution offered a solution. By declaring all republics, oblasts, and krais (small states) equal subjects of the Russian Federation, the new Russian constitution spells out a de jure resolution to the center-regional conflicts in Russia that occurred throughout 1992 and 1993. While bilateral negotiations between Moscow and the other republics continued through 1994, only one republic--Chechnya--held out against recognizing the new constitutional basis of Russia's federal framework. In 1994, therefore, Chechnya's independence became the exception rather than the rule--and was a major eyesore for a Russ, ian president seeking to consolidate and strengthen state power.

The "Party of War"

The December 1993 elections spurred changes that both hardened the rationale for the war against Chechnya and isolated the president from those who sought alternative methods for dealing with the breakaway republic. The momentum behind massive military action against Chechnya built further in the fall of 1994 when the incentives to intervene increased for those with growing influence over the president, while those against war were pushed to the margins of the decision-making process. By the end of November, the party of war," as it was dubbed by the liberal Russian press, was in control of the Kremlin and was determined to resolve the Chechen crisis by force. The main actors in the party of war were Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Federal Counterintelligence Service, (FSK, for, merly the KGB) head Sergei Stepashin, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Yegorov, Security Council secretary Oleg Lobov, and Aleksandr Korzhakov, head of Yeltsin's personal security. By December 1994, all of these principals had a personal interest in resolving the Chechen crisis militarily.

For Grachev, a war in Chechnya offered a convenient distraction from his troubles with corrupt officers returning from Eastern Europe. His newly appointed first deputy defense minister, General Matvei Burlakov, was under investigation for allegedly selling weapons and equipment while Russian forces withdrew from Germany. In November, Dmitri Kholodov, the investigative journalist who had uncovered much of the military's wrongdoing, was assassinated in Moscow. With many suspecting military complicity in the killing, calls for Grachey's resignation grew louder. A quick little war in Chechnya--a war Grachev predicted would be over in a few hours--offered him a way to divert public attention from his and his military's deteriorating reputation.

Stepashin also needed a quick victory. On November 26, 1994, his officers bungled a covert attempt to overthrow Dudayev. While allegedly opposed to overt military intervention during earlier deliberations over the crisis, Stepashin may have seen military escalation as his route to redemption after the disastrous November operation. He also hoped that, in the long term operations like Chechnya might reaffirm the FSK's raison d'etre, leading to greater resources and new prestige for an institution under fire.

For Soskovets and Yegorov, the war offered an opportunity for career advancement. Within Chernomyrdin's government, First Deputy Prime Minister Soskovets represented the interests of the military, the intelligence agencies, and the military-industrial complex. War in Chechnya would mean more funds for his constituency and a more prominent role for him in the government, possibly even as a successor to Chernomyrdin. Initially, the war did pay dividends to Soskovets, as he was named the government official in charge of day-to-day operations in Chechnya. Yegorov, the nationalities minister from Krasnodar, was new to Kremlin court politics. Appointed deputy prime minister responsible for nationalities on the eve of the Chechen crisis, Yegorov soon emerged as the most vocal proponent of a military solution. A quick victory in Chechnya would have meant rapid advancement for Yegorov.

Oleg Lobov's stature within the Kremlin also stood to grow from a security crisis like the Chechen war. A Yeltsin confidant since their time together as party bosses in Sverdlovsk more than 20 years ago, Lobov had the ear of the president but not the public stature of a key official. Upon assuming control of the Security Council in September 1993, Lobov aimed to increase the power of this new, ill-defined institution. Soon after a minor success in wresting power from Chernomyrdin's government during the ruble crash in October 1994, Lobov gained tremendous stature when the Security Council became the primary decision-making body in the intervention and in the subsequent prosecution of the war in Chechnya.

Aleksandr Korzhakov also became a major advocate for military action. As the head of Yeltsin's personal security detail, Korzhakov had emerged from obscurity to become one of the president's closest advisers. Known for his nationalist views and antipathy for the chaos of Russia's "democracy," Korzhakov saw a strong move in Chechnya as the beginning of the renewal of the Russian state--a state that he, in collusion with his friend Yeltsin, wanted to rule. Totally dependent on Yeltsin for his political power, Korzhakov sought to keep him in the Kremlin by any means necessary.

Not everyone in the Kremlin or the government supported a military resolution of the Chechen crisis. Most importantly, Chernomyrdin distanced himself from the "party of war" during the initial intervention. First Deputy Prime Minister Chubais, though not a member of the Security Council, refrained from publicly supporting the war. Within the Kremlin, Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, along with presidential advisers Yuri Baturin, Vyacheslav Kostikov, and Georgy Satarov, advocated a negotiated solution. Outside of the government, Yeltsin's most loyal backers in the parliament, Gaidar and other Russia's Choice lawmakers, pushed for exhausting all other means for resolving the conflict before resorting to force. At the moment of decision, however, none of these war opponents had access to the president.


The Chechen war dramatically transformed the constellation of Russia's political forces. Traditional cleavages between reformers and opposition, communists and democrats, and pro-Yeltsin and anti-Yeltsin factions suddenly lost meaning as the divide over the war took on greater saliency. Chechnya did the greatest damage to Gaidar and Russia's Choice--the country's staunchest advocates of liberal market and democratic reforms. Before the war, Russia's Choice served as Yeltsin's most loyal faction in the Duma (the lower house of Russia's parliament). While disappointed with Yeltsin's refusal to participate in the December 1993 elections, leaders in Russia's Choice realized that their party was still best served by a close identification with Yeltsin. Lacking a charismatic leader among party members, Russia's Choice planned to back Yeltsin in the June 1996 presidential elections. In return, leaders of Russia's Choice hoped for presidential backing during parliamentary elections in December 1995.

The Chechen offensive foiled this strategy, creating a real crisis for Russia's Choice. Immediately after shelling began in mid-December, Gaidar tried to carve out a compromise position between fully opposing and fully supporting Yeltsin. Speaking at a hastily organized demonstration against the war on December 18, Gaidar renounced the use of massive military force, condemning in particular the indiscriminate killing of Chechen civilians. At the same time, Gaidar underscored his support for maintaining the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and kept open the possibility of working with Yeltsin to resolve the crisis peacefully.

Initially, Gaidar's compromise position pleased no one. Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev quit Russia's Choice, incensed that Gaidar did not stand unequivocally behind the president. Oleg Boyko, the multimillionaire chairman and CEO of the National Credit Bank and the Olbi concern (a holding company with the National Credit Bank at its core) as well as the deputy chairman to Gaidar within Russia's Choice, also disagreed with Gaidar's criticism of the government. With major business interests tied to the Yeltsin regime, Boyko could not afford to be in opposition. He quit his party position as chairman of the executive committee. Others in Russia's Choice, however, criticized Gaidar for being too soft on Yeltsin. Lev Ponomarev and Gleb Yakunin eventually left the Russia's Choice parliamentary faction, stating that they could not be affiliated with a political organization that participated in Yeltsin's government. (Chubais, another member of Russia's Choice, remained in the government.

More important than these internal splits was the new schism between Yeltsin and Russia's Choice. According to leaders within Russia's Choice, Yeltsin did not appreciate the nuances of the party's position and privately denounced Gaidar's antiwar stance. Further demonstrating their disillusionment with Russia's Choice, Yeltsin's advisers helped to organize two new pro-presidential parliamentary factions, Stability (Stabilnost') and Russia (Rossiya), complete with financial inducements for those who joined. A month later, on April 25, 1995, Chernomyrdin sought to consolidate these pro-presidential groups by forming a right-of-center electoral bloc, which Yeltsin immediately endorsed. Earlier, the president's team had assisted Alexander Yakovlev, former Politburo member under Mikhail Gorbachev and now chairman of the board of directors of Russian public television, in forming a new left-of-center political party, the Russian Party of Social Democracy.

The same day that Chernomyrdin announced his intention to establish the right-of-center bloc, Yeltsin said that Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin would be forming a grand coalition of social democratic forces. With Chernomyrdin's new super bloc to the right of center and Rybkin and Yakovlev to the left of center, Yeltsin's team is confident that it has found strong new allies for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Gaidar, in response, has stated that Russia's Choice must begin looking for a new presidential candidate, and that it will support Yeltsin only if the alternatives are extremists such as Zhirinovsky. While some believe the divide can be bridged over time, Chechnya appears to have permanently ended the alliance between Yeltsin and the traditional core of Russia's reformers. Gaidar's position on the war also altered relations between Russia's Choice and other political parties and movements. The war exacerbated discord between Russia's Choice and the Union of December 12, a parliamentary group headed by former deputy prime minister and one time Gaidar ally Boris Fyodorov. In supporting the war, Fyodorov lambasted Russia's "democrats" for their persistent unpatriotic behavior. In February 1995, Fyodorov convened the founding congress of his new political movement, "Forward Russia," adding yet another hue to an already fragmented Russian political spectrum. While pledging to cooperate with Russia's Choice, Yabloko (Grigory Yavlinsky's political movement), and even centrist groups such as the Democratic Party of Russia, Fyodorov unequivocally declared his intention to run a separate list of candidates in the December 1995 parliamentary elections.

Initially, the war appeared to help close the gap between Russia's Choice under Gaidar and Yabloko under Yavlinsky. Created soon after the army's storming of the Congress of People's Deputies in October 1993, the Yabloko electoral bloc united those democratic reformers who opposed Yeltsin's use of violence. Though Gaidar and Yavlinsky have had a serious personal rivalry as well as minor differences over the pace and method of economic reform, the fundamental cleavage between Russia's Choice and Yabloko emerged over the so,called October events. Gaidar supported Yeltsin's decision to attack the Congress building; Yavlinsky did not. But after Chechnya, and the condemnation of violence by Russia's Choice, few substantive issues separated the two electoral blocs. Both participated in antiwar demonstrations, both called for the resignations of several government ministers, and both advocated negotiations with Dudayev. The only difference of note came from Yavlinsky, who called for Yeltsin's impeachment; Gaidar did not go that far.

Whether the Chechen crisis will reunite these former allies remains to be seen. Gaidar and Russia's Choice have publicly declared their interest in forming some kind of electoral coalition for the December 1995 parliamentary elections. Yavlinsky remains wary, however, fearing that he stands to lose by joining up with politicians formerly affiliated with the Yeltsin regime. Rather than form a bloc uniting the two organizations, Yavlinsky has urged sympathizers from other parties to join Yabloko. Eventually, internal schisms within Russia's Choice could obviate the need for Yavlinsky to negotiate a pact with Gaidar, as defectors from Russia's Choice may join Yabloko. Waiting for Russia's Choice to collapse, however, may ultimately serve no one's interests. A fractured Russia's Choice will destroy the one reformist organization with a nationwide network of party activists, while continued squabbling among the democrats will reinforce their popular stereotype as ineffective, Moscow-centered intellectuals concerned only with their personal careers. Ironically, the Chechen war has offered the democratic forces in Russia a new issue around which to unite. Whether they will seize the opportunity remains to be seen.

The Communist party and its rural comrades, the Agrarians, suffered the least internal discord over Chechnya. Both parties stated their opposition to the war and advocated a negotiated settlement, but neither took to the streets to protest against the government. Both the Communist and Agrarian parties remained publicly unified in opposition to Yeltsin's Chechen policy, even if internal divisions strained relations within each party. Yeltsin tried to win support from the Communists by appointing the first Communist party member to his cabinet: Valentin Kovalev, as minister of justice. But Yeltsin's maneuver failed when the Communist party voted to dismiss Yeltsin's appointee from its ranks.

Ironically, after Chechnya, the Communist party and Russia's Choice--arch enemies for the past three years--were united in opposition to the president and his war, prompting some democratic organizations, including Democratic Russia and Memorial, to call for the creation of a broad united opposition front. While rejecting an open alliance, Yabloko leaders have approached the Communists about coordinating their candidates so as to avoid competing against each other in single-mandate districts in the next parliamentary elections. A coalition stretching from Russia's Choice to the Communist party, however, is still unlikely. On economic issues, Russia's Choice and the Communist party remain very far apart. Even on questions of state power and nationalist renewal, Communist party head Gennadii Zyuganov still considers himself statist (gosudarsvennik), while his party stands firmly for the re-creation of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, one lasting effect from the Chechen war may be mutual respect between communists and democrats, a condition that has never existed before. In multiparty elections such as those for parliament in December 1995, this mutual respect will play only a marginal role. By contrast, during a presidential race with a two-candidate run-off in which the winner takes all, democrats and communists could find themselves supporting the same candidate. For instance, if Yeltsin and Zhirinovsky are the final candidates in the presidential run-off, the Communist party might urge its supporters to back Yettsin. Conversely, if the final candidates are Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky, Russia's Choice might campaign for Zyuganov.

In losing the support of Russia's Choice and stoking the opposition of Yabloko and the Communists, Yeltsin gained an odd new ally during the Chechen war--Zhirinovsky. Considered the leader of the radical opposition before the war, Zhirinovsky was the only major political party figure to support the president without reservation. As the war dragged on, Zhirinovsky and his lieutenants eventually began to criticize the performance of Russian military forces. According to Zhirinovsky's estimation, the military disaster in Chechnya underscored the need for a more authoritarian leader in the Kremlin. However, Zhirinovsky never questioned Yeltsin's decision to deploy military force against Chechnya. On the contrary, Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic faction suddenly became the Kremlin's most stalwart supporter in parliament, even on issues not directly related to Chechnya. Zhirinovsky, in turn, was rewarded for his support by being granted both his first audience with Prime Minister Chemomyrdin and the rank of lieutenant colonel in Russia's reserve armed forces. While it was perhaps only a tactical alliance of mutual convenience, the surprising cooperation between Yeltsin and Zhirinovsky immediately after the Chechen intervention underscored the fluidity of Russian politics.

If Zhirinovsky moved quickly to set out his pro-war position, other nationalist leaders and groups proved less decisive. Initially, several nationalist organizations, ranging from the more moderate Russian National Union (headed by Sergei Baburin) to outright fascist groups like the Russian National Unity (headed by Aleksandr Barkashov), trumpeted the virtues of a military resolution of the Chechen crisis. As the war dragged on, however, most patriotic leaders turned against Yeltsin. Zavtra, for instance, the premier newspaper of the nationalist opposition, characterized the war as the right policy carried out by the wrong leader. Aleksandr Rutskoi, Russia's former vice president and current leader of the patriotic movement Power (Derzhava), blamed Gaidar and the democrats for allowing Dudayev to stay in power so long. Had he been allowed to order emergency rule in Chechnya in 1991, Rustkoi claimed, order could have been restored there within days. While focusing on the purportedly unpatriotic activities of the democrats during the war, nationalist leaders also used the Chechen military debacle to highlight the consequences of a weak state--a state that Yeltsin and the democrats created. The response from the nationalist-patriotic bloc, however, was neither unified nor vociferous, raising doubts about whether a consolidated nationalist opposition will emerge before the December 1995 elections.


Despite this reshuffling of political alliances after Chechnya, the composition of the Duma after the elections this December is unlikely to change dramatically. Internal splits and a confused identity will weaken Russia's Choice unless a new alliance of democratic forces can be forged. Nonetheless, Gaidar is still a respected national figure, and Russia's Choice has a historical claim as being home to Russia's most radical reformers and boasts more parliamentary deputies from single-mandate districts than any other party. While damaged by Chechnya, Russia's Choice can remain in parliament after the December elections and then begin building for a return to power, as they have planned, sometime in the next century. Given Yavlinsky's high public approval ratings--the highest of any Russian political leader in February 1995--Yabloko almost certainly will also clear the 5 per cent barrier and retain parliamentary representation. As a bloc, the Communist and Agrarian parties seem positioned to increase their share of parliamentary seats. The Liberal Democratic party and the electoral bloc known as Women of Russia will also perform well enough in December 1995 to again form party factions in the Duma. The only major question about parliamentary elections is whether centrist and national-patriotic coalitions, be they in opposition to or in support of the president, will coalesce as effective electoral blocs before December 1995. As two blocs or even one, such coalitions should be competitive, since public opinion polls suggest strong support for centrist and nationalist positions. However, if several groups compete (and many have announced their intention to do so), electoral blocs of either a moderate nationalist or centrist orientation might all remain below the 5 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation.

The only certain outcome of the parliamentary elections is that no single party or bloc will win more than 20 per cent of the vote. Even after a third parliamentary election, the process of party consolidation in Russia will trail well behind other postcommunist countries in Europe. Consequently, as a sort of presidential primary, Russia's parliamentary elections will be inconclusive. That will be especially damaging for the three leaders of parliamentary blocs who also aspire to compete in the presidential race: Yavlinsky, Zyuganov, and Zhirinovsky. None will emerge as clearly dominant over the others, leaving the door open for other nonparty presidential hopefuls.

Before Chechnyal the list of nonparty candidates remained fairly short. Possible candidates from Russia's Choice (Gaidar), the federal government (Chernomyrdin), the parliament (Duma chairman Ivan Rybkin and Federal Council speaker Vladimir Shumeiko), and regional administrations (Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Nizhny Novgorod governor Boris Nemtsov) all backed Yeltsin. Pyotr Romanov, a nationalist enterprise director from Krasnoyarsk, and General Alexander Lebed, the commander of the Russian 14th Army in Moldova, were thought to be tongshots for the presidency if they ran. Since Chechnyal however, Yeltsin's popularity has plummeted, and the coalition behind him has crumbled. Suddenly, the 1996 presidential race has been thrown wide open. Three different scenarios now seem plausible.

Without the backing of Russia's reformist forces, Yeltsin will compete for Russia's nationalist, law-and-order vote. The Chechen offensive was in part the beginning of this kind of campaign. In this kind of race, however, he is likely to fail. While polls demonstrate that Russian voters yearn for a stronger state and a more orderly society, few believe that Yeltsin is capable of providing either. For this constituency, Lebed is the obvious candidate.

Given the likelihood of a Yetlsin defeat, a second scenario would be no presidential election at all. If Yeltsin stands no chance of being reelected, he and his entourage can only stay in power by post, poning elections. While Yettsin promised in his annual address to the nation on February 6, 1995, to adhere to the electoral calendar, guerrilla war in the Caucasus, accompanied by terrorist attacks in Moscow, might give the president sufficient cause to postpone elections indefinitely. Judging by the low level of active resistance to the Chechen war, Yeltsin might even succeed in making a declaration of emergency rule stick.

There is a third scenario--a decision by Yeltsin not to run again in 1996. His poor health suggests that running for another term may prove impossible anyway. Such a scenario would allow other political figures close to Yeltsin to enter the race. While it is still early in the Russian presidential campaign, Chernomyrdin is the candidate of choice for several different political forces. Many leaders within Russia's Choice, including former government colleague Gaidar, speak highly of Chemomyrdin. By all accounts, Chernomyrdin did not play an active role in the decision to invade Chechnya, making him an acceptable candidate for those who opposed the war. Chernomyrdin could also win the backing of those who benefit from the status quo: regional government leaders, factory directors, and Russia's growing nouveau riche. As a symbol of centrism and stability, Chernomyrdin may also appeal to voters tired of revolutionary change.

In the unlikely event that Yeltsin does step aside, however, moderates like Chernomyrdin are not sure winners. As Civic Union--a centrist coalition of enterprise directors headed by Arkady--Volsky demonstrated in December 1993 in Russia and former Belarus prime minister Vyacheslav Kebich proved in presidential elections there in 1994, bureaucratic centrists from the Soviet system may make good governmental officials but they often fail as electoral candidates. (Civic Union garnered only 1.8 per cent of the popular vote in Russia's 1993 parliamentary elections while Kebich won less than a quarter of the popular vote in Belarus's presidential race.) Up against brilliant orators, angry nationalists, or men in uniform, the gray, soft-spoken prime minister of Russia may lack the charisma to win a presidential election.

While some believe the divide can be bridged, Chechnya appears to have permanently ended the alliance between Yeltsin and the traditional core of Russia's reformers.

The Chechen war has thus set back Russia's democratic transition, resulting in greater uncertainty about the coming presidential succession. The development of political divisions along traditional socioeconomic lines--as in the West--was already progressing more slowly in Russia than in other East European postcommunist countries. By seeking to raise the appeal of nationalism, the Chechen war has further slowed and confused the process of political consolidation. Like other presidential systems, Russia's strong presidency already discouraged strong parties and weakened the role of the parliament. Election of another fractured parliament will discredit political parties once again and impede still further the development of a competent legislative branch of government in Russia. The war in Chechnya also increased uncertainty over the political orientation of the current president. Rhetorically, Yeltsin continues to echo all the familiar refrains about market reforms and democracy. However, the decision on Chechnya has demonstrated that groups of radically different orientation are competing for Yeltsin's favor in the Kremlin. While the "party of war" now appears to have lost its total control over the president, the core of this hard-line group remains in power. Thus, this president could take new militant and nationalistic actions in the future.

Before the war, Yeltsin was a strong candidate for reelection. Reformist political parties (save Yavlinsky's), administration chiefs in Russia's regions, and business lobby groups all supported Yeltsin, giving him not only incumbency but also organization and money going into 1996. Though his popularity had declined steadily throughout 1994, Yeltsin could have still held on to win one last election, most analysts believed. After Chechnya, however, Yeltsin's old coalition has fractured, and his popularity has tumbled to an all-time low. Heightened speculation about Yeltsin's electability in 1996, coupled with rumors about his health, has widened the field of prospective candidates. Unfortunately, especially after Chechnya, not all of the presidential contenders will be advocating the democratic process. After four years of "democracy"--currently understood in Russia as anarchy, crime, poverty, and now civil war--voters may well be ready for a new order.

MICHAEL MCFAUL is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center.


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online