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Russia’s First Presidential Election, Twenty Years On

On June 12, 1991, some 79 million Russians (74.7 percent of registered voters) went to the polls in the first ever direct election for head of state in the country’s thousand-year history. The position of president of the Russian Federation—then still a constituent part of the Soviet Union—was created in accordance with the results of a national referendum held earlier that year. Unlike Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, appointed by the Communist-dominated Congress of People’s Deputies, the president of Russia was to be elected by direct popular vote. To be registered, a presidential candidate had to either submit 100,000 signatures (in a country of 147 million) or secure the backing of one-fifth of the legislature. If no candidate received more than 50 percent in the first round, a runoff was to be held between the two top vote-getters.

Six candidates who took part in the election represented a wide spectrum of views: from military hard-liner General Albert Makashov and far-right nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky (the 1991 election marked his first significant appearance on the political scene) to populist left-winger Aman Tuleyev and “moderate communist” Vadim Bakatin—and, of course, the two major candidates. The ruling Communist nomenklatura nominated one of its own: former premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, a Gorbachev loyalist who could count on the backing of the Soviet state apparatus. The anticommunist opposition—a wide array of movements and parties that included Democratic Russia, the Democratic Party of Russia, and the Social Democrats—put forward the candidacy of Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin epitomized the contradictions that so often make up Russian politics. The son, grandson, and nephew of “enemies of the people,” arrested and exiled under Stalin, Yeltsin had spent most of his career as a loyal party functionary—only to challenge Communist rule in the 1980s, when such a move still meant, at the very least, demotion and disfavor (after Yeltsin’s revolt against the party in 1987, Gorbachev told him that he will “never be allowed into politics again”). Yeltsin’s public resignation from the Communist Party in July 1990 began a mass exodus from its ranks. His platform in the 1991 election included promises of more democracy, further decentralization of authority from the Soviet government to the republics, economic reforms, and the removal of barriers to free enterprise. In those early days, there were no PR consultants, no focus groups, no large sums of money; as a former Democratic Russia activist recently recalled, Yeltsin’s campaign in 1991 was conducted by volunteers, “on pure enthusiasm”: “People produced [leaflets] with their own money, they gave their effort and their time … People … [were] fed up with the party nomenklatura and wanted it to leave the scene.”

With anticommunist feelings at their peak, a win for Yeltsin was widely expected. But the margin of victory—in the first round—surprised even the candidate himself: 57.3 percent for Yeltsin to 16.9 percent for Ryzhkov, with all others polling in single digits. Days after his inauguration on July 10, the new president signed a decree prohibiting Communist Party cells in all government-affiliated entities. In August he confronted a hard-line communist coup, and, after its failure, banned the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. On December 8, 1991, Yeltsin’s signature on the Belovezh Accords—along with those of the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus—officially dissolved the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Boris Yeltsin’s eight-year presidency encompassed hyperinflation, two wars in Chechnya, and the appointment of former KGB lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin as his last prime minister—but also the flourishing of an independent media, a succession of democratic elections, and Russia’s entry into the G8 and the Council of Europe. “He was a controversial man who did much bad and much good,” remarked Vladimir Bukovsky, a writer and dissident who harshly criticized the former president for his inconsistent approach to reforms and his unwillingness to conduct a Nuremberg-style trial of Communism in 1991-92, “He missed many opportunities, but he accomplished two great things: he banned the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and dissolved the USSR. History will never forget him for this.”

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