Nov 1 1994

The Case of the Disappearing Elections

Why Didn't the Press Bark When Yeltsin Forgot Vote?

On June 12, the Washington Times ran an editorial noting that presidential elections had been scheduled to take place in Russia that day, but were in fact not going to be held. “So, the Russians will not be going to the polls today,” it began. “After the turmoil of the past year, it’s unlikely that many of them will be sorry to see that opportunity slip.”

A search of the Nexis database found no other stories in U.S. newspapers noting this non-event. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post ignored the occasion. As Bernard Gwertzman, foreign editor at the New York Times, told Extra!, “It’s the nature of the business — you don’t normally report something that doesn’t happen.”

But there has been very little notice of any kind that the elections promised by President Boris Yeltsin were not going to happen. In the fall of 1993, when Yeltsin moved against his political opponents and ordered troops to bombard the Russian White House, the U.S. media latched on to his promise to hold early presidential elections (as well as his embrace of the “free market”) as proof of his commitment to democracy.

Yeltsin did not make a spectacular announcement canceling the June elections; rather, it simply became accepted, over the months leading up to the Dec. 12, 1993 referendum on a new constitution, that there would be no June vote. The wording of the new constitution (which does not appear to have been legally ratified — see Extra! Update, 8/94) seemed to allow the president to serve out his full term of office, until 1996.

Instead of remarking on the cancellation of the 1994 election, the simply began writing of the elections as being due in 1996, no longer mentioning the earlier promise to hold them in 1994.

As New York Times Moscow correspondent Steve Erlanger pointed out to Extra!, there is a widespread feeling throughout the press corps that Yeltsin is the “least non-Jeffersonian” of all the main contenders for power. Why insist that Yeltsin stand for re-election, journalists tend to argue, when he might be replaced by an extreme nationalist such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, or a “hardline” communist like Gennady Zuganov?

Perhaps this attitude explains why the U.S. media have largely ignored recent speeches by a number of senior Yeltsin advisers, thought to be acting as mouthpieces for Yeltsin himself, calling for the elections to be postponed again until 1998, or even into the next century.

The Russian media were reporting on these calls for postponement as early as April 20, and there were many stories in European papers throughout the summer. The U.S. press did not pick up on it until July 24, when the L.A. Times ran a long analysis of the Russian political situation. Even after that, most U.S. papers ignored the subject.

The difficulty of reconciling the American media’s image of Yeltsin the democrat with the Yeltsin who cancels elections when his popularity sinks was graphically demonstrated in a Washington Post article from August 14:

The earliest test of strength between the “irreconcilables” and the pro-reform democrats is likely to center around the issue of the postponement of the parliamentary and presidential elections. About the time the opposition will push for early elections, Democratic Choice hopes to attract other democratic forces to participate in a congress of their own. The congress is expected to adopt resolutions in favor of postponing each election by two years: parliamentary to 1997 and presidential to 1998.

Those calling for elections to be held when they were scheduled to be held are labeled “irreconcilables”; those who seek yet another postponement are “pro-reform democrats.”

In the journalist’s lexicon, “reform” means favoring moves toward a capitalist economy. Elections are no longer necessary to prove one’s democratic credentials.

It is hard to imagine the U.S. media reacting with such a deafening, tolerant silence had the Nicaraguan Sandinistas even briefly postponed the elections that led to their ousting in 1990. But then, their claims to being democratic never rested on a fervent conversion to capitalism.

Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist based in New York City.