‘I don’t know which is worse,’ asked the Russian comic Maxim Galkin in a hilarious skit that compared Donald Trump and the veteran populist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, ‘the choice there or the lack of choice here.’
There have been regular national elections in Russia without interruption since 1906, but most of them have offered no choice or only a nominal choice. One of the exceptions was the crunch presidential election of 1996, when the incumbent Boris Yeltsin was standing against the odds-on favourite, Gennady Zyuganov.
Gennady Zyuganov (bbc.co.uk)
Zyuganov was (and remains) leader of the re-constituted, post-Soviet Communist Party of the Russian Federation. In the summer of 1996, it was less than five years since the red flag had ceased flying above the Kremlin. But Zyuganov had become a post-Soviet politician, manipulating messages from the Soviet past, drawing on mysterious resources, and prepared to stand by election results. Voting for Zyuganov was not voting for Stalin, or voting for a new Cold War. Instead, it was a howl against the economic misery and injustice of the early 1990s. Yeltsin was on the ropes.
Fearing a disruption of the system that made them rich, oligarchs offered Yeltsin cash flow, media support, and political nous in the months before voting day. After the election, some very rich men benefited from the cut-price privatization deals labelled ‘loans for shares’.
And not less crucially: Yeltsin’s campaign management was conducted by wizard-like American political operatives.
President Clinton was delighted with Yeltsin’s success. Shortly after, in Helsinki in March 1997, Yeltsin and Clinton agreed to a comprehensive set of diplomatic measures, including the eastwards expansion of NATO, that Zyuganov vociferously opposed.
But the consequence of Yeltsin’s victory was not democratic normalization. On the contrary, Russia missed out on what would have been a potent democratic lesson, one that it has still yet to experience: the peaceful and constitutional transition of power between rival political parties following an election. And the Americans did not achieve an undisputed foreign policy success on the back of Yeltsin’s victory. They overplayed their hand.
It was another chapter in a familiar story, in which friendly and hostile countries alike interfere in each other’s elections. In April 1948, the powerful Communists lost the national election in Italy. The US ambassador, James C. Dunn, was only the most prominent player in a deep and sustained American strategy of ‘political warfare’, aimed at preventing a Communist victory by ‘all means short of war’, generating what would become a decisive ‘perception of victory’ that led to the defeat of the popular Communists in the post-Fascist country. The CIA had been formed a few months before, and this was a foundational experience.
None of this is to justify or explain what might have happened in the recent American election, which has provoked such outrage among US politicians. It draws no lines of causation, but simply offers some context.
And perhaps all this will die down by inauguration day. In the meantime, the way that Russians and Americans have come to talk about each other is fraught with risk. Hacking is one thing. But few places give more scope for provoking unintended consequences than an untied saddle on a very high horse.