Despite its inconclusive results, the Soviet Union's first national referendum was a hopeful step toward a freer, more pluralistic society. Voters withstood heavy-handed Communist propaganda and denied Mikhail Gorbachev a clear mandate to carry out his manipulative notion of national unity. Political maverick Boris N. Yeltsin overcame a KGB-inspired media smear campaign and won considerable popular support. Yeltsin's call for direct presidential elections in the Russian republic won big, too. The referendum offered Soviet voters a new experience. "For once," said one voter in a Moscow suburb, "there was an alternative: Gorbachev or Yeltsin."
This shows that the seeds of real democracy are starting to sprout despite the Kremlin's partial return to censorship and crackdowns. The referendum even delivered a message of political diversity and self-determination from places where there was no voting. Six republics, including the three Baltic states, refused to conduct the polling, noting that they've already declared their sovereignty or independence.
But as positive as the exercise was, the relative failure of Gorbachev and the success of Yeltsin can only intensify the sharp polarization. The struggle will become increasingly bitter between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the bureaucrats and the democrats, the central planners and the free marketeers, the police state apparatchiki and everyone else.
All this poses huge challenges, and opportunities, for the U. S. The Bush Administration correctly recognizes that it can no longer limit its relations with Soviet leaders to Gorbachev alone, as shown in Secretary of State James A. Baker III's unsuccessful efforts while in Moscow to meet with Yeltsin. But Washington needs to move cautiously in its dealings with Yeltsin. Any whiff of U. S. interference could provide hard-liners with a pretext to squelch the spirit of democracy. After all, the most encouraging thing about the referendum is that it happened at all.