Gennady Zyuganov was the man to stop.

Photographer: Alexey Sazonov/AFP/Getty Image

The U.S. Election's Echoes of 1996 Russia

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The very strange U.S. presidential election bears some surprising similarities to the 1996 campaign in Russia -- a momentous event that undermined a fragile democracy and led to the emergence of Vladimir Putin's dictatorial regime. This precedent could be especially telling if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump end up their parties' nominees in the general election. 

The electoral systems in Russia and the U.S. have little in common, but odd things happen when the political establishment is trying to neutralize a populist challenger, which is how the 1996 Russian race was framed.

In 1995, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians were angry and disoriented: Prices had gone up astronomically, Soviet industries were dying and shedding jobs or accumulating salary arrears, tens of millions of people found themselves without a role in an emerging, rough, get-rich-quick capitalist economy and millions had been duped by rampant Ponzi schemes. The Russian army was sustaining heavy casualties trying to prevent the secession of Chechnya. Many Russians were nostalgic for the stability of the paternalistic Soviet state. So, in the 1995 parliamentary election, the Communist Party, led by the barrel-chested, slow-talking Gennady Zyuganov, won a plurality and formed the biggest faction.

President Boris Yeltsin, who had dismantled the Communist system in a whirlwind of often half-baked but painful reforms, had just had his first heart attack. His wife was asking him not to run for re-election. "I was completely worn out from constant stress, squeezed dry," he complained later in his book, "The Presidential Marathon," published in English as "Midnight Diaries." Besides, he was deeply unpopular. In September 1995, he had a 13 percent approval rating, and had few reliable allies.

And yet he decided to run. Here's how he described his thinking:

With a clear head, I told myself: If I run for re-election, I will win, beyond any doubt. I know this for certain! Despite all the forecasts, despite my ratings, despite the political isolation. The question is, should I? Perhaps it's time for me to step down from the political stage. But the thought that by leaving I would help the Communists come to power appeared intolerable. It was probably my all-time passion for resistance that helped me out. By the end of December, I had made my choice.

Thus, the campaign became less about re-electing Yeltsin than about keeping out Zyuganov and the Communists.

Zyuganov was a Communist in name only: In the U.S. today, he probably would be considered a right-wing nativist. In fact, his program sounded a lot like Trump's. He wanted to restore the national industry to its former glory, close the Russian market to opportunistic Western capital, beef up the military and border protections -- in short, make Russia great again. Zyuganov, however, didn't have Trump's skills as a performer -- he had little personal charisma. The rhetoric, however, was strikingly similar, including the racist undertones.

Zyuganov looked strong enough to win. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he went to calm foreign investors' fears, he was practically feted as Russia's next leader. By early March, polls gave him 20 percent support, six points more than Yeltsin.

The election was scheduled for June, and the president had to fight back. For that, he enlisted the help of Russia's oligarchs, the men he had enriched through a flawed privatization program. They pitched in, mostly cash, and all campaign finance rules went out the window. In effect, a huge pro-Yeltsin super-PAC was created -- Zyuganov had to make do with party members' contributions and the backing of some second-tier businesspeople hoping to become the new elite.

The money bought opulent advertising campaigns, endorsements and tours by pop stars, as well as a specially created newspaper about the horrors of a Communist revival, called "God Forbid." It was made by professionals from the top business paper at the time, Kommersant, had a print run of 10 million and was stuffed into mailboxes across the nation. Here's how Yeltsin described it in his book:

In principle, this was normal campaign work. Campaign staff met with all the influential groups in society. Want to survive? Help us. Want to keep running private banks? Pitch in. Want your freedom of speech, private TV channels? Pitch in. Want your creative freedoms, a freedom from censorship and the Red ideology in culture? Pitch in. Want to be in show business? Pitch in. When they saw the young team working for Yeltsin, the whales of business streamed into our campaign headquarters. They pitched in, some organizationally, some intellectually and some financially. Who prevented Zyuganov from offering the same guarantees to the same influence groups? Nobody did.

This was disingenuous, of course. Yeltsin was the incumbent, and his guarantees were worth more. Yet he and his campaign staff did manage to convince the Russian financial and intellectual elite that the only alternative to Yeltsin was a Communist resurgence, the restoration of the Soviet regime. 

In the U.S. today, Clinton is playing Yeltsin to Trump's Zyuganov. Her slick campaign has the backing of hundreds of politicians and dozens of wealthy individuals, notably Warren Buffett and George Soros. She has support from significant segments of the media, too. If Trump is the Republican nominee, keeping him out of power will be a rallying cry, just as barring Zyuganov was in 1996.

People who would have never backed Yeltsin supported him against the Communist. They made big donations, volunteered, compromised with their conscience by not covering the president's worsening health in the media. Clinton is likely going to have some surprising support if she runs against Trump: She will gain allies among moderate Republicans, and media coverage will work in her favor.

At this point, the relatively polite Democratic nomination contest is about policies and platforms. A Clinton-Trump race would be about unpalatable choices. "Do you want more Barack Obama?" Trump will ask voters, just as Zyuganov asked Russians if they wanted more Yeltsin. "Do you want an ignorant authoritarian with a finger on the nuclear button?" Clinton will ask, just as Yeltsin asked Russians if they really wanted the Communists to run the country again.

The 1996 Russian election went to a runoff, which Yeltsin won by 54 percent to 40 percent. By then, he'd had a second heart attack that almost killed him. The voters weren't told about it in time for the election. That would be the equivalent of covering up some serious Clinton misdeed, or getting one's hands on her famous speeches to Goldman Sachs and withholding them from publication. I doubt something like this could happen in the U.S., but if the American elite closes ranks around her, it's not unimaginable.

The Communist Party was crushed by Zyuganov's defeat, just as the Republicans will be if Trump gets the nomination and loses the election. Zyuganov still serves in the Russian parliament, where his party has a small, docile faction. He's a shadow of his former self.

Yeltsin didn't serve out his second term. His health deteriorated, and his popularity fell to another low as he repaid the oligarchs who had given him a leg up. By 1999, he was flailing and befuddled, and when some of the oligarchs -- notably the late Boris Berezovsky -- pushed a wily young ex-KGB operative as a potential successor, he acquiesced. Shortly before Yeltsin's resignation in the least minutes of 1999, Vladimir Putin had been appointed prime minister. The resignation made Putin acting president, and he still hasn't relinquished power. Yeltsin tried to prevent a Soviet resurgence, but the unfair election and the oligarchs' outsize influence led to a similar outcome.

For many Russians, the 1996 election was a moment of original sin: They agreed to bend rules and put their conscience on pause to keep Zyuganov out of power. They had little moral standing to protest when Putin threw the rule book completely out the window.

The U.S., of course, has much stronger institutions. Yet when an election is framed in negative terms and the winner is, to most voters, a lesser evil rather than truly the most desirable candidate, the risk of disappointment is high. Clinton may turn out to be a weak president, just as second-term Yeltsin was. She won't have the power to appoint a successor, but Americans may grow too tired after a third Democratic term, and by 2020, they could let it be known.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net