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New Kind of Candidate

Last week, two critical elections took place, one for governor in Nizhny Novgorod and one for mayor in Samara. These elections took on much greater significance than a typical regional election in that they filled offices vacated by two new deputy ministers in the current government: First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Sysuyev. Since both Nemtsov and Sysuyev are considered leaders of Russia's "second liberal revolution," elections in Nizhny and Samara effectively served as referenda on the present government. Consequently, supporters and opponents of the current regime devoted inordinate amounts of time, organizational resources and money to their campaigns.

According to accounts reported on Russian national television networks, Moscow newspapers and some Western press accounts, the "reformers" won and the "communists" lost both elections. This oversimplified scorecard is fundamentally flawed and obscures the new real contours of Russian electoral politics. From 1990 to 1996, Russian electoral politics were polarized between "reformers" and "communists," but since last year's presidential election, this bipolar scheme has disappeared. In its place, a more complex range of leader "types" and ideologies is beginning to emerge.

While still early in the presidential electoral cycle, one can already identify not two but four categories of candidates that will compete in 2000: the liberal-young-reformer-type (Nemtsov); the non-ideological khozyain, or boss, who get things done (Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov); the anti-communist and anti-regime protest candidate (Alexander Lebed); and the traditional communist (Gennady Zyuganov). In Nizhny and Samara, all four types were represented. In Nizhny, a Luzhkov-like khozyain won. In Samara, a Lebed-like "protest" candidate won. In other words, both the communists and the reformers lost.

In Nizhny Novgorod, Gennady Khodyrev represented the traditional communist opposition in the final round of the gubernatorial election there. He had the full support of Zyuganov and his Russian Communist Party as well as active support from the ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Given that Khodyrev finished second, one can agree with conventional accounts that reported that the "communists" lost in Nizhny.

But the Nizhny victor, Ivan Sklyarov, in no way represented the liberal reformers or Nemtsov's man in Nizhny. Early in the campaign, Nemtsov supported his vice governor, Yury Lebedev. When it became clear that Lebedev had no chance of winning, Nemtsov loyalists in Nizhny tried to minimize turnout as a way to postpone the election altogether. (If turnout was less than 25 percent, the election would not have been legitimate.)

Ironically, the close finish between Khodyrev and Sklyarov in the first round convinced Nemtsov and his local allies that they had to support Sklyarov. Nemtsov visited the region and publicly endorsed Sklyarov in the last days of the campaign. In the weeks of campaigning before Nemtsov's visit, however, Sklyarov purposely tried not to identify himself with the former governor. He stressed that his own "natural conservatism" would serve as a needed correction to Nemtsov's radical reforms. In the countryside, Sklyarov's message was even more anti-Nemtsov. According to Maxim Dianov, Sklyarov's campaign manager, the main message of their campaign in the rural electoral districts was "Sklyarov is a better communist than Khodyrev."

Immediately after his electoral victory, Sklyarov moved quickly and publicly to distance himself from Nemtsov. At his first press conference after the election, Sklyarov declared that he personally identified himself with Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov. For dramatic effect, he even wore a kepka, a cap worn frequently by Luzhkov.

In Samara two other types of future presidential candidates were represented. Deputy Mayor Anatoly Afanasiev played the role of liberal reformer. His candidacy was supported by the former mayor, Sysuyev, the entire executive apparatus of the mayor's office and all major media outlets in the city. He received extensive financial support from the local business community as well as Moscow, which allowed him to employ some of Russia's most famous electoral consulting firms.

And still he lost. The victor, Georgy Limansky, assumed the role of protest candidate in this drama. While Limansky has been a known political figure on the Samara scene for several years, he has never succeeded in winning a major election before last week's victory. The decisive factor for him this time around was Lebed's endorsement. Limansky recently became a member of the Political Council of Lebed's People's Republican Party. He also was successful in massing support from other noncommunist but anti-government groups in Samara, including Yabloko and Boris Fyodorov's Forward Russia.

Both these elections contain important lessons regarding Russia's next presidential election. First, the old dichotomy of "democrats" versus "communists" is gone. Politicians, analysts and journalists who continue to cling to this old framework either are deceiving themselves or their constituents. Second, these elections demonstrated that traditional communists cannot win major elections. For the future presidential election, this means that a traditional communist may again make it into the second round, but has no chance of winning that round. Third, both of these elections also showed the weakness of today's "party of power." While representatives of today's government remain confident that a monopoly on national media combined with hundreds of millions of dollars and a political message about the communist threat will succeed again in 2000, elections in Nizhny and Samara suggest they are wrong. Rather, these elections hint that we are more likely to see Luzhkov versus Lebed in the final round of a presidential election rather than Nemtsov versus Zyuganov.

Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford University, and Sergei Markov, a professor at Moscow State University, are associates at the Carnegie Moscow Center. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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