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 "Russians elect first dead man in history,"  Russian skinhead

Rec'd July 5, 1996

 

"Russians elect first dead man in history," one headline screams. "Better dead than Red," reads another. The possibilities are endless. Of course it didn't happen. As it turns out Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first and so far only democratically elected president, was suffering from a variety of maladies, none of them life-threatening, but enough to take him out of the public eye for the week leading up to Russia's second round of voting. When he didn't turn up to vote at his normal polling station, rumors started to fly. Nothing better than 200 journalists and nothing to cover to get the rumor mill cooking.

 

The elections, which everyone expected to go off with a bang, ended with simple democracy taking its course; the winners patting themselves on the back and the losers conceding defeat. All the press hype, the speculation of the communists calling in legions of hard line supporters from the country if they felt they were cheated, or of Yeltsin calling in the troops to remain in office if he lost, dissipated with the heat of summer that finally hit Moscow yesterday.

 

The campaign wasn't fair; Yeltsin dipped into the state's coffers to fund his organization, he flouted election laws and kept the opposition off of television. But every election is unfair, with the incumbency goes advantages. Look at Mexico, Indonesia, any South American "democracy," Haiti, even Bosnia. But the end result was the Russian people expressed their will and that was the most important result of the entire exercise.

 

A miracle? Is something going to happen? Will there be riots? Will the elections stand? Of course. More than anything people here want nothing to happen. A reluctant vote for Yeltsin was a vote for stability, for life to remain the same, for no more dramatic changes. Coups, tanks on the streets, long lines, lack of goods, these things were relegated to the past with the election.

 

So what was wrong with Boris Nikaliovich? Why did he withdraw from the public eye a week before the elections? Some thought he had suffered a minor stroke or a heart attack. What else would explain his absence from the campaign trail especially after he specifically declined to go the G-7 meeting of World Leaders in Lyon, France in order to campaign in the final days? His aides said it was a hoarse throat. If that were true, why didn't he go on TV and say, "I have a sore throat." It would have ended all speculation straight away. But he didn't, he let his aides speak for him which simply made the press wonder if his health was an issue. Mind you, only the foreign press was reporting the health issue. The local press ignored Yeltsin's absence almost entirely because they didn't want Yeltsin to lose; raising this fear, this question in the electorates' mind which may have caused him to lose what was looking like an election too close to call.

 

Media bias? Of course, the press admitted it to Lee Hocksteader of the Washington Post. Journalists admitted to getting paid off by the Yeltsin campaign to write friendly stories and they were only too happy to do it given the alternative presented by the communists. The communists, after all, represented everything that the country had broken away from in the last five years, restricted travel for Russians and foreigners in Russia, restricted press, restricted television, restricted book sales, etc. Of course the press wanted Yeltsin to get re-elected. He's not perfect but he's a whole lot better than what was here before, even with Gorbachev's reforms.

 

The country breathed a collective sigh of relief (at least Moscow and St. Petersburg, the only places we really have an effective gauge) when the early results started to roll in and they showed Yeltsin far ahead of Gennady Zyuganov, the communist challenger. Zyuganov had run strongly in the east during the first round almost three weeks before so the results were a good sign. Even taking into account the "red belt," in the Russian south, it looked like Yeltsin was set for victory. People were much less worried than they were after the first round when, for instance, Victor, with whom I worked, walked in the day after and said, "I hate this country, no one turned out to vote." Vic was worried, as many were, that through apathy, the communists were going to return to power.

 

So what happens now? There's Alexander Lebed, the man Yeltsin appointed to head his security council after Lebed's strong first round showing. Lebed campaigned on law and order, and being a former general, thinks he can accomplish this. Lebed wants to root out corruption in government and among businesses but at what cost?

 

To throw his support behind Yeltsin Lebed forced Yeltsin to sacrifice his defense minister and seven others in that ministry. And then Lebed started to speak out against everything from freedom of travel to freedom of religion to foreign influence ruining Russia. Is Lebed a hard-line nationalist in a reformer's clothing? Will Lebed be influential or superfluous? Is Lebed going to be Yeltsin's Rasputin?

 

Afraid at offending Lebed before the election, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin came out yesterday and said no one would usurp the powers of his office, a pointed remark aimed at the new security council chief. How he will react is anyone's guess, and how much Yeltsin will continue to back Lebed is also a big question. So with the communists now out of the way, all focus shifts back to the Kremlin, who stays, who goes and what the pace of reforms will now be. It should be an interesting summer.

Rec'd July 17, 1996

 

A meeting with the Vice President of the United States canceled? What's wrong? A Secret Service agent asked me outside of the Kremlin walls as we waited to be admitted for the meeting between Gore and President Yeltsin. Yeltsin's taken a holiday, I replied, which means he's actually had a heart attack. I turned nonchalantly away. The agent turned white. I chuckled. Sometimes you get to pay back the security guys who are always telling you what to do.

 

Implications? Big. After all, Gore is the Vice President and one doesn't stand up the Vice President for no good reason. The press service said that this was a good time for Yeltsin to have a holiday, it was before the inauguration and the "weather is good around Moscow now." Hello. Speculation was, of course, rampant. CNN was on the air within the hour broadcasting Yeltsin being dead again (and again and again). I think Gore was miffed, he was curt to the press all day as we tried to peg him, to get him to talk, but he just waved and walked away.

 

So I found myself in a bus organized by the Kremlin and the US Embassy in Moscow, on a small road out to a village called Barvikha, where Yeltsin's dacha is, but more significantly, where the sanitarium in which he recovered from both of his heart attacks, is located. It was a tight press pool, me, one TASS photographer, one international video photographer, one Russian TV photographer, one Russian print reporter and two guys who were traveling with Gore on the trip from Washington.

 

As we got closer to Barvikha the quality of the cars on the road increased. In Moscow one is constantly surrounded by Ladas, Moskviches, Gazs', spewing out tepid fumes, falling to pieces, intermingled with Mercedes 600 SELs, BMWs and Audis. But as we got closer to the sanitarium it was the Ladas which were intermingled with the Mercedes, Saabs, Volvos and Volkswagens. Hardly a Russian car in sight. I figured this must be a rich village.

 

We pulled up to the entrance to the sanitarium. Our minders jumped out to meet the special forces soldiers who were manning the gate of the spa. A thick gate was off to the left, men milled about with AK-47s strapped to their sides, a thin rope across the road restricted access to all but the privileged. After clearing security, the light next to the gate turned green and we drove up the road into Yeltsin's hospital.

 

It's a lovely place this Barvikha sanitarium, I guess it must have belonged party elite in another time. Now it's a government hideaway. The grounds are well groomed, there are a variety of beautiful trees including birches, spruces, walnuts, evergreens and a bunch of others that I can't name. There wasn't a scrap of paper on the ground, not a cigarette butt in sight, no spittle on the road, it was like being in Switzerland. The pay phone was a regular phone, presumably one could call anywhere.

 

Our bus parked between two ponds, one with a small bath house which looked like it was built in the last century in classic Russian style, ideal for swimming from. Birds twittered, frogs croaked, there were lily pads in the ponds, all only 20 minutes out of the center of Moscow. Our little band of correspondents made its way up the drive to the main entrance of the sanitarium. I was snapping away, taking pictures of this exclusive hideaway, half afraid the security guards were going to tell me to stop. But they didn't and I got some nice file pictures for when Yeltsin is committed for the final time.

 

We walked around the main building which looked empty except for the staff sweeping the front stairs for the umpteenth time. Yeltsin wasn't located in the main building, of course, the president has his own building. We were ushered around to the side entrance where we encountered both of Yeltsin's personal photographers. One guy I like very much mainly because he's not out to screw everyone else. The other guy, however, really looks out only for himself and tries to make sure that he alone has access to the president and he was mightily upset by our presence at the expected meeting. Our press minders had to have a discussion with this photographer, who doubles as a "security" agent, and fortunately, the press minders won and we were allowed to cover the president.

 

From the side entrance hall where a lonely woman sat watching a TV blaring across a badly furnished, badly lit room with two security monitors on her desk, we were shown down a hallway, up to the third floor and into a room next to the president's study. There we were told to wait. The furniture was all pseudo-renaissance, fake antiques mixed with old communist chairs and couches which looked incredibly tacky. The floors were gleaming oak, varnished, waxed and dusted. We waited, silently, not wishing to disturb the ill president.

 

Suddenly the door opened and we were told to step inside. There was Yeltsin, in an window alcove, dressed in a dark suit, hair combed immaculately, looking pale and stiff, but certainly alive and well. The two personal photographers were already standing inside in what they thought would be the best positions. We lined up silently next to them. I started to shoot Yeltsin, wide, to show him waiting and, for my files. Yeltsin remained where he was when we entered, neither acknowledging or denying our presence. He stood stock still for a couple of minutes while the photographers alternatively checked their light meters, got a white balance, and took pictures. Then he started to pace while waiting for the vice president to show up. Back and forth across the alcove, slowly, stiffly, not the same man who danced with the young rockers in Kazan but not a corpse either.

 

Then the doors swung open and Al Gore, tanned, full of youth, brim and vigor, strode in and walked across the room to shake the president's hand. The grasped each other's hands for about 30 seconds, exchanging pleasantries; Gore complementing Yeltsin on his victory in the recent elections. They walked over to the window alcove and sat down around a table where again Gore complimented Yeltsin, this time saying he was really impressed by his dancing. Yeltsin replied that these are the things you learn when you run for office. They both laughed and we were asked to leave.

 

The two met for 45 minutes or so, talking about what I don't know. Then Gore's convoy pulled up to the front door and he sped away, off to his various other appointments around the Russian capital.

 

So what about Yeltsin? Well, as my colleague Greg White pointed out last night that although Yeltsin looks sick, he's alive and that's more than most Russian men at his age are. Also, he's just finished this incredibly exhausting campaign where he fought for his political life, and, let's face it, he is old. Will he last the four years of his term? Good question, I think it depends on his will to live, his will to govern and the people he surrounds himself with in the new administration. If there's a lot of political infighting it could have serious consequences healthwise, if things are harmonious and he can rely on his staff, he should be just fine. It should be, at any rate, an interesting four years.

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