From Russia with Revenge
How the Clinton Administration’s Meddling in Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 Re-election Campaign Destroyed its Economy and Nascent Democracy, Paved the Way for Putin, Doomed Hillary, and Set the Stage for Trump
By Ned Snark
Published by INSURGE intelligence, a crowdfunded investigative journalism platform for people and planet. Support us to report where others fear to tread.
INSURGE intelligence publishes this extensive story outlining the fascinating recent history of US interference in Russia — specifically the Clinton administration’s financial and political efforts to subvert early Russian moves toward democracy. Despite the egregious nature of these efforts, they are so little understood today that most recent debate about Western policy toward Russia completely ignores their reality and implications. This piece is being released at a time when Western-Russian relations are perhaps at their lowest level since the end of the Cold War, in the hope of contributing a dose of historical context to recent events.
Disclaimer: I am neither a Trump nor Putin supporter, nor is this article an attempt to justify the actions of the latter nor glorify him in any way, but insofar as matters of foreign policy are concerned there seems to be quite the disconnect between Russia and the West, and with the United States in particular, which somehow claims to be the innocent victim in all of this even though the current situation is, not surprisingly, of its own making in a story that has largely been forgotten but is crucial if anyone is interested in understanding Putin’s, as well as the Russian, mindset in geopolitical matters such as these, hence the purpose of this piece.
Also, all sarcasm has been italicized, and before I forget, please give the first hyperlink a chance so as to help me settle a debt #I’mAPoetAndIDidn’tEvenKnowIt. Please, it won’t take five minutes and the embedded URL is, unquestionably, the best part of this entire write-up if I do say so, myself. Thanks in advance.
If someone had been tasked with setting to music the first official meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last July, would any song have been more apropos than Metallica’s Master of Puppets? The memory is probably a bit fuzzy now, but a number of statements made in the waning days of the Obama administration by some of the most senior officials of the U.S. government bemoaning Russia’s efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election via the internets must have made for quite the comedic spectacle at the Kremlin.
“Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American,” said Sen. Chuck “Not Amy” Schumer (D-NY). “A fundamental of a democracy is a free and fair election,” remarked Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). “It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Russians were engaged in activities in an attempt to manipulate the election, a direct attack on our national sovereignty [despite the fact that our drone strikes violate the territorial integrity of countries around the world on a daily basis, but, you know, whatever],” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., told MSNBC. “You guys do realize that you sound exactly like Mortimer Duke incredulously imploring the President of the Stock Exchange to ‘turn those machines back on!’, right? Crimea river,” replied the thoroughly amused Russian Bear, owing to that which follows.
If it’s been said once it’s been said a thousand times that America creates at least the vast majority of its own geopolitical problems, and especially under the guise of spreading democracy, which is really nothing more than the contemporary version of countries such as Spain and Portugal, for example, during the Age of Exploration ostensibly claiming that converting the indigenous peoples of their newly-conquered lands to Christianity was somehow in the best interests of the natives, who were obviously never consulted on the matter. Sure, the United States is all for letting the people decide, except when we aren’t *cough* Mohammad Mosaddegh *cough*, which is why it’s entirely possible that Russia’s hacking, for which it’s been known since GoldenEye, of the Notorious DNC had less to do with helping Trump than hurting Hillary, who, once again, ultimately paid the price for Bill’s dirty deeds — more specifically, during the Russian Presidential Election of 1996.
At his first summit with Boris Yeltsin in Vancouver during April of 1993, Clinton affirmed his support for the Russian leader, saying, “Mr. President, our nation will not stand on the sidelines when it comes to democracy in Russia. We know where we stand….We actively support reform and reformers and you in Russia.” Yet as the Russians soon discovered, the only reforms with which Bubba and his administration concerned themselves were those of the economic variety, and if you think that his particular brand of capitalism was harmful enough in the United States, it would prove to be beyond catastrophic for a Russia whose economy was already in tatters owing to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin’s implementation of Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs’ program of economic “shock therapy” beginning on January 2, 1992, which, sadly, would prove to be as destructive and sadistic in terms of economics as it is on the psychological level.
Granted special powers by the Russian Parliament for a year to carry out said policy, Yeltsin only made things worse by saying that the period of hardship would last for a duration no longer than “6–8 months” as if he somehow thought that undoing over seventy years of communism could be accomplished in one fell swoop like performing the classic tablecloth trick, which, not surprisingly, resulted in an epic fail. Almost immediately, the effects were devastating. With the government lifting the price controls on 90% of consumer goods and 80% of the intermediate ones, by the end of January, prices on the remaining products had soared by 350%, while, “the total index of consumer prices in January-February, 1992 [had] increased [by] more than 500%”, thereby creating economic conditions that, unfortunately, managed to trump even those of the Weimar Republic #Kudos, leading Deputy Secretary of State, and human Dilbert character, Strobe Talbott, during a visit to Moscow in December of 1993, to utter his now infamous caustic quip that what Russia needed was, “less shock [and] more therapy.”
Worse still, hyperinflation made the ruble practically worthless and eradicated personal savings, new heavy taxes were levied, government spending was such that by the end of the year, “the Russian budget deficit was 20 percent of GDP,” unemployment was rampant, and even those who had either been incredibly fortunate to retain their jobs or find a new occupation, none of which could ever be seen as gainful, weren’t getting their wages for months, and sometimes years, on end, with the latter becoming a recurrent, if not also extremely disturbing, trend for the rest of Yeltsin’s tenure. An article from Newsweek on January 12, 1992 entitled “‘Shock Therapy’ — With An Emphasis on Shock” described the economic carnage: In Moscow’s state stores, the price of bread quadrupled. The free-market price of sausage went up more than sixfold, and pork sold for 465 rubles a pound-more than the average wage for a month’s work. Yeltsin’s overnight price reform had Russians worrying about runaway inflation. “We used to go shopping with one 10-ruble note,” said a worker named Yuri. “Now we need a suitcase full of them.” Russians even came to joke that, “Everything the Soviets ever told us about Communism was a lie. Unfortunately, everything they told us about Capitalism was true,” and, “What has…Yeltsin accomplished in one year that our former Soviet leaders couldn’t in 70? He’s made Communism look good.”
Indeed, according to Russia: A Country Study (1996), from July 1992 to October 1995 the exchange rate between the ruble and the dollar went from 144:1 to about 5,000:1. What’s more, by April of 1993 real earnings had depreciated by more than 80% in a year that also saw the poverty rate decline to 29% from 36% in 1992, with the former being a number that translated to 60% of Russian families living below the poverty line by American standards in 1993 #ItGetsBetter. In addition, retail prices were also out of control, increasing by 2,520% in 1992 and 245% in that first January, alone, although the annual rate had fallen to 840% the following year with the inflation, well, rate also sinking to 224% in 1994 (woo), and just in time for the start of the disastrous First Chechen War, during which close to 100,000 people were killed.
By then, of course, Yeltsin was virtually ruling as an autocrat following the resolution of the Constitutional Crisis of 1993 that came about, in part, as a result of the country still adhering to the Russian SFSR Constitution of 1978, under which, “the parliament was the supreme organ of power in Russia,” and even though the office of the presidency had been created in 1991, apparently no one had seen fit to outline the division of power between the two branches, thus ensuring an eventual power struggle that came to resemble a ‘Duck Season! Rabbit Season!’ kind of political scenario. As the head of Russian Television, Oleg Poptsov, was quoted as saying by the newspaper Izvestia in August of 1993, “The President publishes decrees, as if there is no Supreme Soviet, while the Supreme Soviet suspends the decrees, as if there was no President.”
Then on September 21, after narrowly avoiding impeachment by the Congress of People’s Deputies (CPD) as a consequence of subjecting the country to a year of shock therapy, and despite the electorate confirming their support for him, his economic and social policies, as well as the need for early elections for the CPD in a national referendum on April 25, Yeltsin, with one stroke of the pen (Presidential Decree № 1400), dissolved both the CPD and the Supreme Soviet and scheduled the elections for a new bicameral parliament for December. In so doing, however, he was in direct violation of Article 121–6 of the aforementioned Constitution of 1978 that reads, “The powers of the President of [the] Russian Federation cannot be used to change the national and state organization of the Russian Federation, to dissolve or to interfere with the functioning of any elected organs of state power. In this case, his powers cease immediately,” which was upheld by a vote of 9–4/10–4 in the Russian Constitutional Court (I know — I thought that it was a bit of an oxymoron, myself) that also issued a formal statement on the matter wherein Yeltsin’s actions were deemed so as to, “…serve [as] the basis for the removal of the President of the Russian Federation…from office or the enactment of other special mechanisms for his responsibility under Article 121–10 or 121–6 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation.” Spoiler alert — Yeltsin would suspend the RCC following the resolution of the crisis.
Additionally, the parliament refused to comply with the mandate, opting instead during an emergency session to impeach Yeltsin, declare his decree to be invalid, and swear his VP, Alexander Rutskoy, in as Russia’s new president during the wee small hours of the morning after pulling an all-nighter from September 21–22, even though perhaps the only people who recognized such a move were the nearly 4,000 parliamentary supporters (primarily from the nationalist circuit at that point), themselves, who turned out in droves on the streets of Moscow and in front of the White House, in particular, to demonstrate against Yeltsin, who, as a result of the measures taken by the legislature, coordinated with the city authorities to cut the phone lines, heat, hot water, and electricity to the building.
In the days that followed, both sides would engage in a high stakes game of chicken. Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Speaker of the Supreme Soviet, called for a general strike, while other leading deputies distributed weapons to those who had assembled before the home of the legislature out of a fear of a possible military assault (contrary to what was reported by officials from within Yeltsin’s government, and despite the presence of a number of bad hombres of the political extremist/paramilitary variety within the close to 4,000 demonstrators who gathered in support of the constitution on the steps of the White House during those fateful days, the actual amount of “armed defenders” from within said group was most likely somewhere between 500 and 600 people, leaving them hopelessly outnumbered against Yeltsin’s forces even before the arrival of the army. It wasn’t like you had a mob of 4,000 people brandishing torches and pitchforks out there, let alone having a Stinger missile at their disposal as was actually, and absurdly, suggested by Interior Ministry officials at the time — a claim that, shockingly, was never substantiated), as its makeshift defenders, “moved to build barricades from bits of broken asphalt, concrete blocks, pipes and reinforcing rods dragged from a construction site,” and amassed cobblestones that they had removed from the street in front of the Parliament’s parking lot, thus inadvertently making Yeltsin’s job much easier when, during the period from September’s final stanza to the first few days of October #AlliterationNation, over 5,000 Interior Ministry police, on his orders, arrived to cordon off both the building and its supporters, which, gradually, proved to be effective, as over the course of the next week, with food supplies running low, the once-sizable crowd had been whittled to a fraction of its former self. That was the good news.
On the downside, however, those who remained were predominantly from the paramilitary scene (the rest were olds) and were becoming increasingly high-strung in the absence of sustenance (which is perfectly understandable. After all, you’re not you when you’re hungry #Snickers.), thus making the prospect of a violent confrontation increasingly more likely, which, despite the success of the quarantine, was not confined to the vicinity of the White House. Rather, in places such as the Pushkin Square subway station and on 1905 Street, and as if the forces of Yeltsin and the proponents of Parliament were locked in a game of whack-a-mole that would ultimately determine the fate of constitutional law in Russia, the president’s detractors resurfaced in an effort to impart their message on indifferent Muscovites, only to be beaten and chased away by, “10 truckloads of truncheon-wielding police,” as was the case on the night of September 29 on the aforementioned 1905 Street.
The escalation of violence and the lack of a speedy resolution to, in effect, the country being held hostage also drew Yeltsin the ire of the representatives from 62 of Russia’s then-88 regional Soviets, who, in a meeting in Moscow on September 30, “warned [him that] they would take “drastic economic and political measures” including withholding taxes, unless he ended the blockade of the blacked-out parliament building by Monday [October 4],” with other members of the anti-Yeltsin fan club in Siberia threatening to secede from Russia altogether and form their own country should he refuse to stand down (people in Novosibirsk even tried to block the Trans-Siberian Railway in protest), at which point the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, attempted to resolve the precarious predicament via peer mediation. Most regrettably, however, and in spite of his best efforts, he could only delay the inevitable, as the talks, although initially promising, ultimately came to nothing, and on October 3 the shit. Got. Real.
That afternoon, following their demonstration in October Square, a significant contingent of anti-Yeltsin protesters numbering anywhere from 4,000–10,000 people descended upon the White House after breaking the siege by simply overrunning the hopelessly outnumbered riot police on the Krymsky Bridge, who quickly fled the scene.
From the balcony, Rutskoy and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Speaker of the Supreme Soviet, addressed the flash mob, calling upon their comrades to break off into detachments and take the mayor’s office as well as the linchpin of the country’s broadcast media — the national television station at Ostankino. In the first they were successful, but their attempt to storm the TV center was bloodily repulsed, leaving 46 people dead and another 124 wounded according to official figures, prompting Yeltsin to declare a state of emergency at 6:30 that evening and order an army that had repeatedly stated since the onset of the quagmire that it wanted absolutely nothing to do with the matter for a variety of reasons and practically had to be talked into participating in the affair at all by Yeltsin, himself (really, it cannot be overstated as to how much these guys just did not want to be there), to quell the unrest, which produced the now iconic scene of T-72 tanks shelling the White House because democracy, and by the time that the inhabitants of the building had surrendered the next day, the violence displayed from October 3–4, alone, had claimed the lives of 123 people and left another 384 wounded. Meet the new Russia. Same as the old Russia.
Alas, such was not the assessment in Washington. On the contrary, Clinton, following the bloody conclusion of Black October, chose to brand the Russian parliament as a group of “antireformist communists” #TheyStartedIt while simultaneously portraying his counterpart in the Kremlin as the golden boy who not only enjoyed the support of his people but was also the only person capable of transforming the post-Soviet state into a modern, Western-style, republic, which, most regrettably, only served to highlight the abject failure of the administration to heed the warnings outlined in official cables from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow concerning the growing opposition within Russia to Yeltsin’s U.S.-backed reforms, but hey, why let facts get in the way of a good story, right? Ugh. “I think the United States should support Yeltsin as long as he is the person who embodies a commitment to democracy and into letting the Russian people chart their own course, and he does,” Clinton said. Moreover, during an interview with Omega XL fanboy Larry King on January 20, 1994, our 42nd President said of his pal Boris, “He believes in democracy. He’s on the right side of history.” Now there’s a novel turn of phrase. *facepalm* By the way, in terms of “democracy” –
As a consequence, the results and implications of that December’s elections, where the Russian electorate completely defied American expectations (well, from those within the clueless Clinton administration, anyway, for as previously stated, the peeps in the Moscow Embassy certainly knew what was up) by delivering a rather scathing rebuke of Yeltsin’s “shock therapy” and other reforms owing to Russia’s Mad Hatter, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and his ultranationalist Liberal-Democratic Party winning the most seats in the new State Duma that replaced the Supreme Soviet (they received 23% of the vote and won in 64 of the country’s 87 regions), which, on its own, should have raised some serious red flags (pun intended) stateside, never mind the questionably legitimate, at best, adoption of Yeltsin’s new constitution that not only completely remade the political power structure in Russia to the point where the new said legislature was effectively neutered, but also all but guaranteed that the impeachment of the executive branch would be practically impossible moving forward, completely failed to register.
Instead, and as opposed to taking a pause for the cause at this critical juncture to reassess the socioeconomic conditions within the country and then, oh, I don’t know, perhaps adjusting their policies accordingly, Clinton and company forged ahead in implementing their economic vision for Russia and, along with the International Monetary Fund, cut Yeltsin another check, conditional, of course, upon him continuing down the road of Market Reforms with a heavy emphasis being placed on his Privatization Program, where the government sought, all at once, to turn over what had previously been state-run enterprises and property to the people via a voucher program (hmm, sounds like a form of “wealth redistribution” to me, but whatever).
Unfortunately, however, such was not the outcome. According to anthropologist and current university professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University Janine Wedel, who also authored Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, on Frontline’s episode Return of the Czar that aired two days after Vladimir Putin was first sworn in as the President of Russia, “the way in which privatization was conducted was more about wealth confiscation than wealth creation, giving advantages to a very small group of power brokers in Russia.” In time, these power brokers would come to be known as the Oligarchs — Russia’s Robber Barons, if you will — whose insane wealth and backroom dealings, not to mention connections, in some cases, to organized crime, enabled them to acquire the crown jewels of Russian industry (aluminum, gas, oil, nickel, and steel enterprises, etc.) for rubles on the penny (I realize that the expression is “pennies on the dollar”, but you’ve seen the exchange rate), while, and as is sadly often the case in Russian history, the people, who aptly termed Yeltsin’s let’s say “attempts” at “privatization” “prikhvatizatsiya,” or “grabification,” with the latter honestly sounding like some kind of “degree program” that was offered at Trump University #GrabThemByThePussy, got the short straw, and this is even before the advent of the infamous “loans-for-shares” scheme.
In essence, when it came to Russia’s most prized economic assets, these guys even took the last can of Who Hash, and the result was a country that operated as a combination of a kleptocracy, an oligarchy, and a plutocracy. In short, and as usual, an American made geopolitical clusterfuck of YUGE proportions. Said E. Wayne Merry (Chief Political Analyst US Embassy from 1990–1994) on the aforementioned episode of Frontline, “The US government chose the economic over the political. We chose the freeing of prices, privatization of industry, and the creation of, really, unfettered, unregulated capitalism and essentially hoped that rule of law, civil society, and representative democracy would develop, somehow, automatically as a result of that.” Well done, sirs.
In 2009, Nobel Prize-winning economist and noted opponent of such “shock therapy” economic policies who also served on Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1992–1997, Joseph Stiglitz, said in an interview with the New York Times:
“In retrospect I think “shock therapy” was a disastrous economic policy. It was ideology trumping good economic analysis. The comparison between the successes in China and the failures of Russia tell a clear story of how bad “shock therapy” was.
The defenders [of shock therapy] say things like, “We were worried that if we didn’t engage in rapid change, there could be reversals.” The critics of that view said: “If you proceed in this reckless way it will result in alienation, failure and reversals.”
It was a matter of judgment, of course. We hadn’t gone through these experiments. But there were other historical experiments on which we could base judgments. None were identical. More reversals occurred in the shock therapy countries, whereas the countries that proceeded in a more careful way have typically moved to reinforce a more democratic direction.”
But wait a minute, wasn’t that supposed to be the whole point of the operation in the first place — helping to foster democracy in Russia? Apparently not, says the Thomas Andrews of this titanic (pun intended) economic disaster, Jeffrey Sachs, in an excerpt from his letter to the editor of The Financial Times that appeared on The New York Times’ now-defunct Economix Blog only one day prior to the paper’s conversation with Stiglitz:
“In the case of Eastern Europe, we helped those countries partly because it was seen as they were going to be the new members of NATO,” he said. “When it came to the former Soviet Union, we did not help those countries because they were seen as strategic adversaries.”
Against such a backdrop, by January of 1996 the only thing that had arguably managed to suffer a more pronounced decline than Russia, itself, was Yeltsin’s approval rating, which had plummeted to single digits (anywhere from 4–8% depending on the sauce #ChrisBroussardMeme). Even worse for the incumbent were the results of the parliamentary elections from that previous December, in which the resurgent Communist Party headed by Gennady Zyuganov won more than double the amount of votes, at 22.3%, than that of the government’s party, Our Home is Russia, and, by extension, 157 of the 450 seats in the State Duma; and yet, just six months later, Yeltsin defeated Zyuganov by around 13.7 percentage points to win his second term in office. How did he manage to pull off such a remarkable turnaround, never mind one in such a short period of time? Why, with more than a little help from his American overlords friends, of course. You didn’t actually think that we’d allow the Russian people to make such a momentous decision regarding the future of their country on their own and, with it, potentially undo all of our “hard work”, did you? *wink*
The historical anomaly of both the presidents of Russia and the United States seeking their respective second terms in office during the same year likely also factored in the Clinton administration’s decision to engage in, and as Kellyanne Conway would undoubtedly put it, “alternative stumping”. With the elections only separated by approximately five months, a victory by Zyuganov would not only have been catastrophic for Yeltsin’s political career and possibly even put his very life in jeopardy (the “grab your torch and pitchforks” crowd had been growing for some time, as you’ve seen), but the fallout would most likely also have reverberated stateside, as Clinton, at the very least, would have had some serious ‘splainin’ to do over those developments, as well as the possible and serious ramifications thereof, during the campaign that year, while at the most he would have been forced to grapple with being bestowed the title by which he should forever be known to history, in addition to his wealth of other lovely contributions, as The Man Who Lost Russia, hence the rationale behind his administration’s decision to tamper with the Russian Presidential Election of 1996.
Still, despite the clandestine nature of our meddling in Russian domestic affairs at the highest level, our involvement was not some kind of regime change operation, etc. conducted by the CIA, although the level of secrecy displayed by both governments throughout this most disturbing and regrettable episode of imperialistic American foreign policy nearly rivaled any of our previous examples of interfering around the world, with the operative word, there, of course, being nearly, because somehow, even with the most stringent of security measures in place, word still managed to get out about a certain American political adventure in Russia in the midst of Yeltsin’s campaign, which is why you might remember the cover of Time Magazine from July 15, 1996 as pictured in the header.
What’s interesting, here, is not just the piece, itself, but the timing of its release, which one could argue makes the esteemed periodical an accomplice in undermining what was left of Russia’s fragile democracy owing to the fact that its author, Michael Kramer, was only able to obtain the information needed to write the article from the three American political consultants on the condition that the launch of the exclusive cover story be deferred until after the Russian Presidential Election, despite the fact that an entire episode of Nightline to which that very subject was devoted aired a full week prior to the publication of said feature, on the grounds that, umm, the ill-timed (as if there is ever an appropriate, well, time to make such a transgression a matter of public record) unveiling of a story about American interference in said election had the potential to alter the outcome of that same election?
Since the expose first went to press, however, and as often happens with events of this nature, new information has come to light regarding those involved and the extent of our collusion in this criminal chapter of Russo-American relations, hence why I’m not going to simply regurgitate what Kramer has already entered into the historical record, but at the same time, here’s what happened.
Whether it was a case study in arrogance, ignorance, naivete, some combination of the three, or just plain old stupidity, by January of 1996, and as previously stated, despite the resurgence of the Communist Party and Yeltsin’s approval rating being in the toilet, only a small contingent within the latter’s political camp honestly believed that the president could actually lose. Among that group was one Felix Braynin, an ex-Belorussian professional hockey and soccer player who had left his homeland in 1979 for the greener pastures of San Francisco and, thanks to his impressive LinkedIn connections, had the ear of a number of Yeltsin’s most influential advisers.
As Braynin saw it, and in a classic example of desperate times call for desperate measures, what the campaign (or at least what passed for it in the early going, anyway) lacked the most was painfully obvious — the kind of professional help employed by political hopefuls and mainstays, alike, during elections in the United States, and to that end, after engaging in backroom dialogue on the subject with the higher-ups, including the then-First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia who also headed the campaign during the early stages, Oleg Soskovets, Braynin was given the go-ahead at the start of February 1996 to “find some Americans” for the job.
Of course, he was also instructed to operate in almost complete secrecy for the obvious reason that had there been any kind of a leak prior to June 16 about how Yeltsin’s re-election bid had been completely revamped by a team of political consultants from the United States, even the most ardent of his supporters would have finally seen Yeltsin for what he truly was — a Western lackey — and might as well have handed the presidency to Zyuganov on a silver platter #NoPressure. As Braynin said in the article, “Secrecy was paramount. Everyone realized that if the Communists knew about this before the election, they would attack Yeltsin as an American tool. We badly needed the team, but having them was a big risk.”
Much of the credit for the success of the endeavor ultimately has to be attributed to the work of Fred Lowell, who served as the middleman between Braynin and The Americans. A lawyer from San Francisco, Lowell was well-connected within the GOP in California (which as of this moment probably qualifies as an endangered species in terms of politics), and ironically it would be the gross political misstep of the Golden State’s then-governor, Pete Wilson, that would enable him to set the wheels in motion.
With the latter’s presidential bid practically over before it started, Lowell, on Valentine’s Day, contacted and was able to enlist the support of Wilson’s deputy chief of staff and, “G.O.P. expert in political data analysis,” Joe Shumate. He also managed to scoop up, “Wilson’s longtime top strategist,” George Gorton, who then, along with Shumate, recruited Richard Dresner, “a New York-based consultant,” and fellow veteran of bygone Wilson campaigns, for the job, who brought much more than his political experience and expertise to the effort.
Almost twenty years earlier, Dresner, along with fellow political consultant, and all-around slimeball, Dick Morris, had played a role in helping some guy named Bill Clinton win the governorship of Arkansas, and with Morris replacing James Carville as the 42nd President’s chief political strategist in 1996, Dresner allowed the team to be able to cut through all of the red tape (pun intended) and get help straight from the top, even though the latter denied having such interactions with Morris at the time (despite that very claim being disputed in the article and which has since been proven false), so while the White House had no hand in assembling the Three Musketeers, the powers at be certainly knew of the trio’s existence (and, it should be noted, did absolutely nothing to stop them) prior to their arrival in Moscow just a week after Shumate’s phone call with Lowell.
What no one directly or indirectly involved in the venture could have anticipated, however, was the truly bizarre manner in which Gorton, Dresner, and Shumate were received by their Russian hosts. Case in point, and as opposed to getting right to work, which one would think would have been the only logical course of action given that Yeltsin was thoroughly behind the political eight ball at the time and as such simply could not afford to waste any more, well, time, for the first two days, “the [president’s] supersecretive high command,” in the words of Kramer, treated Dresner like The Plague, and at no point during their stay did any of the Three Amigos meet or even converse on the phone with Yeltsin, opting instead to lay out their concerns, ideas, and proposals via memorandum which, according to Pavel Borodin, Yeltsin’s Minister of the Presidency, was the method of choice, even with the numerous difficulties owing to translation, as, “Having the memos let the President consider them calmly. We had many discussions about the recommendations and in the end adopted most everything the Americans advised.” The reason for such an arrangement? As Braynin spelled it out for Dresner, “There are too many factions and too many leaks to risk your dealing with him directly. You are our biggest secret.”
If, at that point, any potential misunderstanding(s) existed among the Three Fellas regarding the seriousness of the situation as well as the ramifications of their work, an hour-long meeting with the aforementioned Soskovets at 3 p.m. on February 27, for which Dresner had prepared a five-page paper outlining the team’s plan of attack for radically reshaping Yeltsin’s campaign by first introducing its staff to, “sophisticated methods of message development, polling, voter contact, and campaign organization,” but that quickly became sidetracked by a lengthy conversation concerning Clinton’s chances of winning a second term due to the First Deputy Prime Minister having already read the action plan (and because why not waste more time? #ProcrastinationNation), made things frighteningly clear.
After emphasizing that time was of the essence (seriously? *facepalm*), informing the troika that they were hired (because, umm, that issue had not yet been resolved?), and announcing that he would, “tell the President that we have the Americans,” Soskovets left Dresner with a rather chilling preview of what could transpire if the worst should happen, politically, which would also loom over the campaign until the very end like a threatening storm cloud, saying, “One of your tasks is to advise us, a month from the election, about whether we should call it off if you determine that we’re going to lose.” That’s an option? #Democracy
With the stakes now set, it was finally time for Gorton, Dresner, and Shumate to provide the services for which they had been hired (per the terms of the contract drafted by the International Industrial Bancorp Inc. of San Francisco, “a company Braynin managed for its Moscow parent,” and Dresner-Wickers, “Dresner’s consulting firm in Bedford Hills, New York, the team would receive their standard rider of $250k plus all expenses (in ’90s dollars, by the way #DatCashTho) for four months of work beginning on March 1), or at least so they thought. Only a week after their meeting with Soskovets, the campaign was under new management, as Yeltsin, in arguably his best move of the entire race, replaced the latter with his daughter, Tatiana Dyachenko, a computer engineer.
On the plus side, her lack of any kind of designs on power meant that none of the shadowy forces surrounding the man she called “Papa” could move to unseat her, but on the flip side, her complete dearth of political experience meant that the trinity had to devote a few weeks to Campaigning for Dummies, a task made all the more challenging for the group by her philosophical and steadfast aversion to, for the longest time, using any “American-style dirty tricks”. Gorton’s suggestion that Zyuganov essentially be subjected to the Chicken George treatment (look it up, kids), for example, was met with a response of, “but it wouldn’t be fair,” and it took quite some doing by the trio in such instances to explain to her that such practices were, and still are (for better or worse depending on your point of view), par for the course in elections conducted within the United States. Silly Russians, (election) tricks can’t be nixed.
In hindsight, it was completely unfair on the part of the consultants to have expected someone with zero experience in politicking to be familiar with all that goes into running a successful campaign, but to her credit, Dyachenko never pretended to be well-versed in the subject, even admitting during their first meeting that, “I don’t know this business. I don’t know what to ask.”
Unfortunately, and to the group’s complete and utter dismay, the latter sentence also pervaded Yeltsin’s team in two of the elements most essential to bringing about any kind of electoral victory — political advertising and polling. To the astonishment of Gorton, Dresner, and Shumate, and as a result of the Duma elections where a great deal of the president’s backers had been sent packing despite spending quite a pretty penny on television commercials, not only did Yeltsin’s advisers fail to see any value in such forms of political self-promotion, but they also believed that their overall strategy for the campaign could be gleaned simply by relying on the polls that were shown in newspapers, a dangerous calculus in and of itself, to say the least, that was only made worse by the fact that those in charge of the focus groups conducting the “research” were posing such thought-provoking questions as, “If Yeltsin were a tree, what kind of tree would he be (this was a real question.)?” thereby making their “findings” completely useless, with their TV game also leaving much to be desired. “All of that,” said Shumate, “had to be explained to a group of people who, no matter their professed commitment to democracy, were trapped in a classic Soviet mind-set. They thought they could win simply by telling big shots like the directors of factories to instruct their employees how to vote.”
That said, GDS had some important learning to do, themselves, when it came to presidential politics in Russia’s decrepit and dysfunctional democracy, which afforded them luxuries of which their peers back home, on either side of the political spectrum, could have only dreamed and that they would utilize to the fullest. For starters, Yeltsin’s control of state-run television, coupled with a press corps that was almost entirely behind the president (while many within this contingent of journalists backed Yeltsin of their own accord owing to fear of a communist victory (plus, who wants to work for Pravda, am I right?), it should also be noted that a wealth of other reporters and important news people were “financially encouraged” to write positive pieces about Yeltsin and his regime), meant that the campaign had the media in their back pocket.
Secondly, financially speaking, they might as well have had unlimited refills. Forget fundraising dinners and appealing to donors, never mind Russia’s electoral law that supposedly capped campaign spending at $3 million for each presidential candidate (as an interesting aside, the communists actually abided by this rule, although that likely had more to do with their empty coffers as opposed to, say, feeling morally obligated to abide by the provision than anything else), for as was the case with a great deal of the members within the fourth estate, the fear of a communist victory was such that the oligarchs, who, at the bare minimum, likely stood to face both jail time and the loss of their considerable financial holdings had Zyuganov won, did everything in their power to ensure a Yeltsin victory, putting up somewhere between $700 million and $2 billion, according to estimates, to “finance” the campaign. Yeah…
Finally, Gorton, Dresner, Shumate, and, obviously, Yeltsin, by extension, greatly benefited from the contributions made by many of the latter’s minions, who pulled out all the stops — legal or otherwise — to deliver a w for the president. Among the favorite tactics employed by these goons included, “[the] cancellation of hotel reservations made by the Zyuganov campaign, issuing false invitations to Zyuganov press conferences with the wrong times, and the publication and distribution of fake extremist Communist programs.” Even better, “The Communist candidate’s speeches and position papers were blacked out in the major media, and voters could learn about Zyuganov’s program only if they happened upon a rally or leaflet.” Noice.
And yet, all of the money and political black ops in the world could do nothing to remove Yeltsin from his precarious political predicament. For as the team soon discovered upon conducting their own analysis primarily by, you know, asking questions of actual substance, it wasn’t just that the majority of the Russian people didn’t like the guy, it was that they justifiably saw him as, “a friend who had betrayed them, a populist who had become imperial,” to further borrow from Kramer’s article, and there was more bad news. According to Dresner, “Stalin had higher positives and lower negatives than Yeltsin. We actually tested the two in polls and focus groups. More than 60% of the electorate believed Yeltsin was corrupt; more than 65% believed he had wrecked the economy. We were in a deep, deep hole.”
Still, it didn’t take an experienced pollster to recognize that the issue that had the entire country (oligarchs and mobsters, etc. notwithstanding, of course) understandably seething was of the economic variety (even those same Russian newspapers with the empty statistical findings were on top of the matter). More specifically, Ruskies were all up in arms over government workers who hadn’t seen a paycheck in MONTHS despite Yeltsin promising to remedy the situation, which might as well have induced a Dresner facepalm but also provided the team with a teachable, if not also what one would think would have been a Captain Obvious, moment. As Dresner explained to Dyachenko, “You can’t just promise these things. You have to do them. And then you have to make sure the people know what you’ve done.”
To accomplish this relative to the criminal economic deprivation that faced the aforementioned members of the proletariat (sorry, it’s just too easy), the triad advised Yeltsin to, in the political equivalent of flogging someone in a public square/Village Green, chastise those officials who had failed to apportion the salary arrears as per his instructions, a proposal that both Yeltsin and the press were all too happy to implement and cover, respectively; but while such a feel-good PR exercise looked great for the cameras and bought the president some political capital, without the money needed to actually alleviate said financial suffering the whole undertaking would have been seen as yet another empty gesture, and it was at this critical juncture where the Clinton connection paid crucial dividends, although you wouldn’t know it from reading Time’s report, which is rather curious given that the whole lipstick on a pig scenario was certainly not lost on other reputable news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, never mind esteemed Kremlinologist Lilia Shevtsova.
Strong-armed by the administration, and in a move aptly characterized by Michael Dobbs in The Washington Post as, “an expression of political support by Western governments for Russian leader Boris Yeltsin in advance of presidential elections in June,” the normally, or at least outwardly, politically neutral International Monetary Fund became, with a single transaction, Boris’ single largest donor by approving a loan for $10.2 billion (the second largest loan of its kind in IMF history to that point, by the way, that was only superseded by the one given to Mexico in 1995 for $17.8 billion), with a crucial installment of more than $4 billion being made available during that first year, thus enabling Yeltsin to repay the $2.8 billion owed in back wages, as well as giving him the ability to follow through on his promise to increase spending on social programs. Sidebar — there were social programs in Russia during the ‘90s?
Even at the time, the sentiment expressed by many Russian political experts and which has been substantiated by history was that without the sudden infusion of Das Kapital #SorryNotSorry, Yeltsin almost assuredly would have lost — possibly in the first round — and the West went still further to influence the outcome of the election. While privately the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Thomas Pickering, unsuccessfully attempted to “persuade” Grigory Yavlinsky, a democratic candidate who presented a considerable threat to Yeltsin, to back out of the first round so as to increase the odds of success for Boris Nikolayevich, the then-managing director of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, went out of his way to state that not only was the loan hardly a blank check, but also, and more importantly, that should “a new Government” come to power that would fail to adhere to, “the commitments of Russia established in these documents,” that their, “support would be interrupted,” thereby essentially blackmailing the Russian populace into voting for Yeltsin, and the results spoke for themselves in the opinion polls conducted by ROMIR (Russian Opinion and Market Research), in which support for the president more than doubled from a paltry 8% on February 18 to 17% on March 17, and suddenly the campaign had traction.
From there, and in order to capitalize on their newfound momentum, the team knew that it needed to iron out a few of the campaign’s, as well as Yeltsin’s, wrinkles, starting with the lack of a “central message” on the part of the re-election effort. Given the results of their earlier findings, it was obvious to Gorton, Dresner, and Shumate that trying to get people to vote for Yeltsin on the basis of his track record in office to that point, would be a colossal mistake, not to mention a complete waste of time, and therefore, as they outlined in a 10-page memo from March 2 to Yeltsin and his advisers, “There exists only one very simple strategy for winning: first, become the only alternative to the Communists; and second, making the people see that the Communists must be stopped at all costs.”
Today, such an approach would appear to be axiomatic, but much to the further frustration of the independent contractors, the Russians disagreed, primarily due to, as Dyachenko explained, former communists popping up as presidents in Bulgaria (1990 and 1992; Dr. Zhelyu Zhelev was a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party before being expelled in 1965 after, “questioning Leninist theory.” #StillCounts), Ukraine (1991 and 1994), Romania (1990, 1992, and 1996), Latvia (1993), Lithuania (1993), and Poland (1995) not even a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with Stalin’s popularity on the rise at the time, the anti-communist stance was, therefore, in her view, simply, “wrong for us,” and the two sides quarreled over the subject well into the beginning of April, as Yeltsin prepared to deliver an all-important speech outlining his campaign program, which, inadvertently, settled the issue once and for all.
With so much on the line, and in a patented nine-point memo, Gorton, Dresner, and Shumate called for Yeltsin to enter the hall from which the speech would be delivered much in the same manner as his American counterpart does upon arriving at the House Chamber to give the State of the Union, albeit surrounded by what they termed as a “diverse audience” comprised of your standard political props in students, women, and such popular figures as the Mayor of Moscow as opposed to the ordinary “middle-aged guys in suits” in an attempt to offset the view held by most Russians that their president was, according to said memorandum, “an isolated man who can’t be trusted, a man surrounded by a handful of advisers who have their own agenda.” Moreover, The Big Three wanted Yeltsin to impart upon the members of the television audience his ability to grasp the “real problems” faced by ordinary citizens on a personal level, with the whole spiel to take, “no more than fifteen minutes.”
Yeah, not so much. In an oratorical performance of which John Kerry would indubitably be proud, Yeltsin first made his way to the stage completely devoid of any supporters (planted or not) and put forth the level of enthusiasm often displayed by someone presenting a lab report, only to drone on for over an hour in which he, “wandered across themes (sound familiar? #ugh),” before a room of — drumroll please — middle-aged guys in suits, leaving nary a person with the least bit of confidence in his abilities. In the end, and as Dyachenko informed the team in the aftermath of such a display of political ineptitude, the factions surrounding her father, apparently so scared off by the recommendations made by the trio, won out, hence the reason for the noticeable absence of the suggested “popular figures”, by whom his advisers worried that Yeltsin would be “overshadowed”. Oh lawd.
Furious, and determined to make their case once and for all and especially in front of at least some of the power brokers from within Yeltsin’s camp who had failed to heed their advice, the triumvirate went straight to the game tape, showing various segments that typified the horrendous performance, with other video and pictures of Yeltsin mixed in, to a group of 40 run-of-the-mill Russians who were hooked up to a contraption called a “perception analyzer”, a kind of more detail-oriented, albeit political, version of Tinder whereby the user indicates their level of approval/interest in, say, an image, soundbite, or a piece of film footage, etc., by moving the dial on their hand-held device to anywhere from zero, on the left, to one hundred, on the right, which is then fed into a computer that produces a graph of the data in “real-time” — whatever that means — and the result, not surprisingly (well, to Gorton, Dresner, and Shumate, at least), made for both sweet vindication and quite an eye-opening experience for their Russian colleagues.
To the latter’s complete and utter astonishment, the members of the focus group incontrovertibly found scenes of the stale audience comprised of Kristen Stewart’s forefathers to be completely off-putting, and were equally enthused with Yeltsin’s vow to improve the lives of everyday citizens. “The analyzer taught us that Yeltsin should avoid promising anything,” said Shumate. “The country just didn’t believe him.”
Their expertise and methodology no longer in question, and with the campaign’s theme now finally cemented, the troupe sought to further fine-tune their approach by tasking their focus group coordinator, Alexei Levinson, with identifying the electorate’s underlying fear of the Communists; and while, “long lines, scarce food and [the] renationalization of property,” were among the chief concerns cited by the citizenry, the subject that made for the most trepidation was the prospect of civil war, which proved to be the team’s, as well as Yeltsin’s, in. As Shumate explained, “That allowed us to move beyond simple Red bashing. That’s why Yeltsin and his surrogates and our advertising all highlighted the possibility of unrest if Yeltsin lost. Many people felt some nostalgia for what the communists had done for Russia and no one liked the President — but they liked the possibility of riots and class warfare even less.” Said Dresner, “‘Stick with Yeltsin and at least you’ll have calm’ — that was the line we wanted to convey. So the drumbeat about unrest kept pounding right till the end of the run-off round, when the final TV spots were all about the Soviets’ repressive rule.”
Behind the top-notch quality and, by extension, success of said television content was the advertising firm Video International, where Yeltsin’s account was handled by Mikhail Margolev, a former, “propaganda specialist for the Soviet Communist Party…[who also served] as an undercover KGB agent masquerading as a journalist for TASS, the Russian news agency.” In accordance with the campaign’s new and official stratagem, and in an attempt to broaden Yeltsin’s appeal to even the most reluctant of Russians, the agency produced in the run-up to the first round of voting on June 16 fifteen one-minute TV ads wherein actual Russian citizens #RealPeopleNotPaidActors discussed their lives, Yeltsin, and such, but when the team wanted the President, himself, to appear in these commercials and speak to the concerns as expressed by the people from a place of compassion and empathy, he balked, leaving The Power of Three with no other recourse but to phone their friends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Speaking to that specific conversation, Kramer writes that, “The American team wanted Clinton to call Yeltsin to urge that he appear in his ads. The request reached Clinton — that much is known — but no one will say whether the call was made. Yet it was not long before Yeltsin appeared on the tube.” Tinfoil hats notwithstanding, this would appear to be the perfect example of where there’s smoke, there’s fire, but without evidence, anyone reading the article way back in 1996 could, naturally, have only speculated on the matter, at best. That is, until the passage of time eventually, and definitively, confirmed such suspicions.
In an appearance on the conservative media outlet Newsmax TV from September of 2016, Dick Morris spoke to the issue of American “participation” in the 1996 Russian Presidential Election, saying that Putin interfering in our democratic process was retribution for our role in all that had transpired in his country during the 1990s. “When I worked for Clinton, Clinton called me and said ‘I want to get Yeltsin elected as president of Russia against Gennady Zyuganov’, who was the communist who was running against him. Putin was Zyuganov’s major backer.”
“It became public that Clinton would meet with me every week. We would review the polling that was being done for Yeltsin that was being done by a colleague of mine [Morris actually refers to Dresser by name in this linked interview from 2003], who was sending it to me every week. We, Clinton and I, would go through it and Bill would pick up the hotlink and talk to Yeltsin [according to Kramer, as a security precaution, Clinton was referred to as the Governor of California and Yeltsin as the Governor of Texas during such conversations] and tell him what commercials to run, where to campaign, what positions to take. He basically became Yeltsin’s political consultant.”
By “it became public”, of course, Morris was seemingly attempting to gloss over a rather embarrassing episode for the administration that not only threatened to put the kibosh on the entire operation but also had all the hallmarks of a geopolitical disaster. In late March of 1996, a classified memo from the State Department which documented a private powwow between Bill and Boris that had occurred only about two weeks earlier at the anti-terrorism summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt where the two heads of state promised to assist each other in their respective re-election bids with Clinton saying during the meeting that, “he wanted to make sure that everything the United States did would have a positive impact, and nothing should have a negative impact. The main thing is that the two sides not do anything that would harm the other,” was leaked to the Washington Times, prompting congressional outrage with the White House interestingly characterizing the security breach as a “violation of federal law”, while also conveniently failing to mention that the content of the document in question was in clear violation of international law, and calling on the Justice Department to conduct an official inquiry into the matter.
Given his greater overall standing in the world at the time, however, the arrangement between the two men was less symbiotic than blatantly disproportionate, with Clinton doing the vast majority of the heavy lifting in terms of vouching for Yeltsin even to the point of the shamelessly absurd. For instance, one of the more popular criticisms levied against Yeltsin by the Communists was his inability to “stand up to the West,” so during a G-7 summit devoted to the issue of nuclear safety in Moscow from April 18–21, Clinton bit the bullet while his buddy, “lambasted leaders of NATO nations for deploying U.S. nuclear weapons on the European continent,” while also saying that, “Russia considers it a proliferation of nuclear arms when nuclear weapons are placed on the territory of non-nuclear states,” in his opening remarks according to an article from CNN dated April 20, 1996, but B.C. was also mum on the subject of NATO expansion (which, most regrettably, was going to happen irrespective of whether or not it ever became a hot topic) and personally took the already sickening level of American support for Yeltsin to the realm of the cartoonishly absurd when, during his visit to Moscow in April of 1996 wherein he also kept with the latter’s wishes by not meeting with Zyuganov in private, he embarrassingly attempted to equate the brutal war in Chechnya to the most devastating/costliest conflict in American history in terms of the loss of blood and treasure when he said, “I would remind you that we once had a Civil War in our country in which we lost on a per capital basis far more people than we lost in any of the wars of the twentieth century over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no State had a right to withdraw from our Union.” *facepalm*
Afterwards, even Clinton acknowledged just how foolish he had acted, but the whole stunt did make for a perfect microcosm of the state of affairs in both elections by that point, and despite any possible regrets/misgivings that he may or may not have had about uttering such nonsense, the fact of the matter is that at the end of the day it can never be said that Bill didn’t do practically everything he could to serve up a nice, big, fat one for Ol’ Boris to hit out of the proverbial political ballpark.
As it happened, however, and so as to complete the metaphor, Yeltsin proved to be too drunk and sick to even step into the batter’s box, and sometimes quite literally. When Gorton, Dresner, and Shumate returned from a three week hiatus — the only time during which they were ever away from the campaign, just for the purposes of edification — they, much to their shock and disbelief, discovered that despite leaving explicit instructions for the babysitter in terms of what they wanted to see out of Yeltsin’s commercials, the entire operation had nearly collapsed in the political equivalent of what happened to the South Vietnamese Army seemingly every time that the American forces even briefly stepped out for a bathroom break, and it took quite some doing to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
To wit, while they were away, and as opposed to simply adhering to the script as outlined by Gorton in a series of memos prior to the trio’s departure wherein he called for Yeltsin to be filmed for a minimum of four hours over a number of days with the best 15–30 seconds being set aside for the final product, so to speak, the folks at Video International had other ideas, to be kind, opting for a 40 minute shoot starting at 6 am after — get this — Yeltsin had only gotten about three hours of sleep, and the result was to be expected — a commercial where Yeltsin spoke for a little more than two minutes and made it painfully obvious that he was running on fumes. Said Shumate, “It was ridiculous. Here you have a guy whose very health is a major issue, and his fitness to serve is called into question by his very own television spot,” and the hits kept coming.
For Yeltsin, as well as the team, an unfortunate byproduct of this thing called democracy is that people — and ordinary people, at that — are able to express their views irrespective of who happens to own, say, a television network and/or station, which is exactly what happened, here, with the President being taken to task on the war in Chechnya, for example, on a nightly basis, and we can’t have that, now can we? In the words of Dresner, “it was ludicrous to control the two major nationwide television stations and not have them bend to your will,” and thus a new mantra, in terms of Yeltsin’s television coverage, was born. As was their wont, the team laid out their agenda in a memorandum, writing, “wherever an event is held, care should be taken to notify the state-run TV and radio stations to explain directly the event’s significance and how we want it covered.” Okay, this is officially eerie, now. Mmm, democracy, Soviet — I mean Russian — style! *wink*
With their acquisition of Russia’s fourth estate — or at least what passed for it at this particular moment in history, anyway — completed, and in a move of which Yeltsin’s Soviet predecessors would have undoubtedly been proud, the campaign coordinated with newspaper, radio, and television outlets to disseminate as much disinformation pertaining to the election as possible #FakeNews. Ironically, when the team examined the operation’s rate of success via focus groups, for the most part, only Zyuganov’s supporters managed to see through their charade, with 28% of those polled indicating that the reporting was heavily skewed in Yeltsin’s favor while 29% regarded the media as being “somewhat biased,” even though they ultimately still sided with the President, and, finally, there was the curious case of 27% of the people participating in the survey who somehow deduced that the deck was stacked against Boris (personally, I’d like to know as to what became of the last 16%, even though, sadly, such a vanishing act is hardly surprising given Russian history).
By contrast, and as a rather interesting aside, according to “American political scientist and professor” Graham T. Allison, who was the Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs from 1995 until July 2017, and research associate Matthew Lantz in their review of the proceedings as part of the Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project that was also featured in The Russian Election Compendium (1997), when the issue of biased reporting was examined by the European Institute for the Media, which assigned each candidate a “+1” for every positive “news” story and a “-1” for each negative one, “[i]n the campaign for the first round of the presidential elections (June 16), Yeltsin scored +492; Zyuganov scored -313…[while] [i]n the final round of the election (July 3), Yeltsin scored +247; Zyuganov scored -240.”
Next, and in an effort to both compliment their newfound, albeit bought and paid for, media blitz, as well as bolster the campaign’s ground game, Gorton, Dresner, and Shumate recommended, “staging crowds (and government employees were regularly instructed to attend Yeltsin’s rallies),” devised and implemented, “Russia’s first-ever serious direct-mail effort (a letter from Yeltsin to Russian veterans thanking them for their service),” sent the ever-popular Mrs. Yeltsin, Naina, out on the campaign trail, and refused to allow the President to debate Zyuganov. Even Boris, himself, poor health and all, took to the road, doing everything from planting trees to embarrassing himself by dancing on stage at concerts, such as a “rock ’n’ roll rally in the Urals” in the words of The New York Times, in an effort to reach the yute.
Finally, the team also made expert, if not also diabolical, use of the opportunity afforded them on Sunday, May 5 via Alexander Korzhakov — a former KGB General who played every role from being Yeltsin’s chief body guard to his confidant, drinking and sauna buddy, political adviser, and tennis partner — publicly advocating that the election be put on hold owing to his view that, “a Communist victory would lead to bloodshed,” by having Yeltsin publicly chide said member of his own entourage and maintain that the election would, in fact, be held on schedule, while at the same time intimating that, “Korzhakov is not alone in thinking that a Zyuganov victory would start a civil war,” thus playing into the public’s greatest fear, which, unfortunately, worked like a charm, as by then the team’s data indicated around a ten point lead for Yeltsin. “Back then, we really thought we’d win comfortably,” said Gorton, who, by outlining the situation and writing that the, “election was in the bag,” in a memo broke the cardinal rule of bringing the prospect of a no-hitter and/or perfect game to the attention of the pitcher, and in this particular case the man on the mound almost derailed what had become a truly miraculous political metamorphosis by taking Gorton’s sentiments more than A Bridge Too Far, thereby inadvertently suppressing voter turnout in the process. “When he said has was confident that he’d win the election outright in the first round by capturing 50% of the vote, it told us again that you can only lead politicians so far,” said Dresner. “The only real threat to victory was a low turnout, and Yeltsin helped depress it by giving voters a reason to take the day off. If they thought Yeltsin’s victory was a done deal, as he himself indicated, why bother voting?”
In addition to Boris’ acute foot-in-mouth disease, the campaign also had to contend with the prospect of three of the President’s democratic opponents possibly merging into some kind of political conglomerate that had the potential to not only siphon off votes from Yeltsin but also present a realistic third alternative to the President as well as Zyuganov, thus seriously threatening Yeltsin’s ability to even make it through the first round. In response, and so as to ensure that this potential adversary would never come to bear (pun intended), the team advised Natasha Fatale’s partner in crime to appeal publicly to the egos of the two most popular candidates of the trio — Grigori Yavlinsky, the liberal economist and, “the leading democrat in the race,” along with former General Alexander Lebed, a hero of the Soviet-Afghan War and the failed coup attempt of 1991 who, as it came out later but was unbeknownst to the hired hands at the time, “accepted money, staff, television airtime and much-needed advice from Yeltsin’s aides” per his obituary on telegraph.co.uk — based on the belief on the part of the consultants that once these guys got a taste of the spotlight, “neither [candidate] would be willing to drop out in favor of the other,” as Shumate explained,” and believe it or not, the ridiculous tactic actually worked.
Of the final two bachelorettes, however, only Lebed received a red rose, as the team’s findings indicated that should he back out of the race as an ostensibly independent candidate and opt to merge with Yavlinsky, etc. to form what Gorton described as a “third-force coalition,” Zyuganov would inherit Lebed’s supporters, leading the consultants to comment in another memo on May 5 (man, talk about a busy day) that, “Lebed would be the strongest third-force threat, and we believe paying a significant price for his support would be well worth it.” In that respect, and as previously mentioned, Gorton, Dresner, and Shumate were late to the party, but what somehow got lost in translation (metaphorically speaking, of course) was the part about delaying the addition of Lebed to Yeltsin’s government should the former elect (pun intended) to come over to the side of the incumbent, which was hardly a given at the time, until after the conclusion of the election, as the team’s, “polling showed that about 2% of voters would shy away from Yeltsin if that happened,” according to Dresner, only for the President to turn a blind eye to the team’s suggestions and jump the gun by opting to bring Lebed aboard — and as his national security adviser, no less — only two days following the first round of voting on June 16, where, despite depreciating his own value, politically, and in a feat that had seemed to be all but unattainable, to say the least, just four months earlier, Yeltsin walked away with the gold medal, having received 35.8% of the vote, just edging Zyuganov (32.5%), while Lebed, at 14.7%, took home the bronze.
Seeking to sustain the momentum, and in the interest of generating the best possible turnout, The Help scheduled Wednesday, July 3 as the date of the runoff (because, umm, in Russia, not only was the, well, date of such a momentous occasion in no way predetermined or outlined in the constitution, but it could also be set at the discretion of the presidential incumbent? Wow). There was just one problem — Yeltsin’s health, or the near-calamitous deterioration thereof, to be more accurate; although the exact date has never been divulged, at some point during the roughly two week interlude between the first and second rounds of the election, Yeltsin suffered a heart attack that left him incapacitated, and to make matters worse, and as was later reported by The Independent on Friday, November 6, 1998, it was his third such “infarct” — described by the paper as “a term Russians use for heart attacks, but which can refer to other stroke-related problem” — of the campaign.
Under normal circumstances, such an important piece of information would most likely have had some kind of bearing on the outcome of an election, but in the spirit of the long-standing Soviet tradition of keeping the proletariat abreast with respect to the well-being of its leaders, the team might as well have locked all of the information pertaining to the true medical condition of Yeltsin’s health in a black box and thrown away the key, with the official explanation from the Kremlin as to the President’s extended absence being that, “he was simply tired or was suffering from a cold,” which, of course, made for speculation among observers concerning the true nature of the situation, but that’s all that was left to anyone by that point — supposition. In reality, no one knew what was going on, such was the level of secrecy, and with the media almost uniformly in the campaign’s corner there wasn’t going to be anyone investigating the matter. Besides, by July of 1996, the situation in Russia was such that had the three political mercenaries decided to conduct a kind of “would you rather” poll in terms of presidential hopefuls, when forced to choose between a communist and a vegetable, the most likely response from those within the fictional focus group would have been a question concerning the kind of, well, vegetable. “Anyone but a communist would probably have beaten him,” said Dresner, so no harm, no foul, right?
Still, to cover for his sudden, if not also most inopportune, disappearance, the, “campaign team managed to create a “virtual Yeltsin” shown in the media through staged interviews that never happened and pre-recorded radio addresses.” In addition, with Yeltsin no longer involved in the day-to-day operational decision-making of the re-election effort, The Three Stooges were finally able to unleash their fervent anti-communist campaign upon the masses, flooding the airwaves with after-school specials devoted to the horrors of the Soviet period in the run-up to the runoff while also, and just for good measure, publicizing fabricated, “poll predictions…to make the race seem close and increase turnout[,]” and as a result, when the dust settled on July 3, and by a final score of 54.4% to 40.7%, Yeltsin had triumphed.
Or had he? As once again reported by Time Magazine, in February of 2012 and less than a fortnight before that year’s Russian Presidential Election, then-“President” Dmitry “it all goes down in the DM” Medvedev, during a meeting behind closed doors with leading political opponents who had come to air their grievances owing to the alleged rigging of the parliamentary election by the party of the presidential incumbent and his “Prime Minister” Vladimir Putin, United Russia, during the previous December, according to Sergei Babkin, “brought up the presidential elections of 1996 and said, ‘There is hardly any doubt who won [that race]. It was not Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin,’” which, naturally, begets the question of whether or not Anastasia’s dance partner was simply firing off a retort, or is there any actual merit to his response? As it turns out, yes.
Even at the time, and in spite of everyone from Clinton, who, during an Independence Day Celebration in Youngstown, Ohio, continued to display his turd polishing proficiency — or TPP — by saluting the Russian people and Yeltsin for both choosing democracy, freedom, and hope, among other things, “in a free and fair election,” as well as, “their commitment to the freedom that we love,” to the New York Times in its piece from July 4, 1996 entitled “A Victory for Russian Democracy”, insisting that, “a free Russia [had] freely chosen its leader,” to quote the aforementioned article which also interestingly characterized Yeltsin’s successful re-election as, “[g]iven the inequities and disorder…a political miracle…[which] is a testament to [the] stoic patience and…enduring hope [of the Russian people],” there were considerable rumblings and evidence that would seem to suggest that Yeltsin’s “victory” came not by way of any of the stated reasons given either by our 42nd president or said reputable news outlet, but, instead, as a result of criminal misconduct across the board.
In “Assessing Russia’s Democratic Presidential Election,” co-authors Graham T. Allison and Matthew Lantz wrote that, “There is no question that there were serious thefts of votes in some areas. In Chechnya, for example, the Central Electoral Commission counted one million votes, despite the fact that international observers believe that fewer than 500,000 adults live in Chechnya. Even more remarkable, precisely 70.0% of people were reported to have voted for Yeltsin! Similarly in Tatarstan, it is clear that votes tallied for Lebed, Yavlinsky, and Zyuganov in the first round were, when summed by the regional election officials, transferred to the Yeltsin column. In addition, the reported voter turnout in a number of regions is implausible. In a pro-Zyuganov television advertisement made by the celebrated Russian film member Stanislav Govorukhin, that was in fact not shown, Govorukhin told of his own local voting station in the first round of the campaign where, he asserts, the turnout was 49% of the district at 9:00 PM but an hour later when the poll closed, it was reported to be 70%.”
More recently, Canadian journalist and Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor since 1998, Fred Weir, and Professor of Economics at UMass, David M. Kotz, both of whom, “were present in the Central Election Commission headquarters on election eve to watch the official vote returns,” had this to say of ballot stuffing/voter fraud in their previously cited 2007 book Russia’s Path: From Gorbachev to Putin. The Demise of the Soviet System and the New Russia, “There were widespread suspicions of fraud in the vote totals…A striking feature of the vote count was that, early in the evening, when only some 5 percent of votes had been reported, the percentages for Yeltsin and for Zyuganov were almost identical to the later final reported percentages. Such a pattern is statistically almost impossible, since early returns are almost certain not to be representative of the electorate as a whole. This suggests that the final percentages were manipulated.”
Additionally, when the final results of the second round were announced, “[p]ractically no one believed that [they] were accurate. Russian commentators debated whether Yeltsin had actually won a narrow majority or Zyuganov had won in the actual votes. The evidence of voter fraud was overwhelming. For example, some regions that had voted decisively for Zyuganov in the first round were reported to vote just as decisively for Yeltsin in the second.”
Assuming that everything that was mentioned in the previous three paragraphs is true, and given the respective credentials of each of the aforementioned sources one would have no reason to think otherwise, the next question, then, logically, is that if such corruption and tampering was so rampant and painfully obvious to practically everyone involved — and at the time, no less — where were the “international observers” who are always on hand during these kinds of proceedings and routinely touted by the West for their role in safeguarding against such manipulation during the supposedly “free and fair elections” held in emerging/fledgling democracies? Well, let’s just say that for all intents and purposes, and much like Harry Potter at the start of Uncle Vernon’s dinner party with the Masons, they might as well have been confined to their room, making no noise and pretending that they did not exist.
According to Sarah Mendelson, then “an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York in Albany” who served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council under President Barack Obama, in an excerpt from Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, “the U.S. embassy warned the USAID [United States Agency for International Development] staff in Moscow to keep their distance from [electoral] monitoring efforts. Unofficially, they were told of worries that fraud benefiting Yeltsin might be uncovered.”
Similarly, during an interview with The eXile first published on November 30, 2007, Michael Meadowcroft, “a former British MP and veteran of 48 election-monitoring missions to 35 countries” who presided over the Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe’s mission to Russia during that fateful presidential election, revealed that not only did, “[t]he OSCE parliamentary assembly [have] a separate mission who [was] passionately pro-Yeltsin,” but also that those at the top in the West, as well as his place of work, had already decided that the conduct of this all-important election was “wonderfully free and fair” prior to the first vote even being cast.
Thus, when his findings concerning Chechnya, which he felt paralleled the circumstances and conditions often faced by voters in African dictatorships such as Cameroon, failed to fit their script, his superiors were none too pleased and twisted his arm to say otherwise. “Up to the last minute I was being pressured by [the OSCE higher-ups in] Warsaw to change what I wanted to say,” said Meadowcroft. “In terms of what the OSCE was prepared to say publicly about the election, they were very opposed to any suggestion that the election had been manipulated.”
He continued, “[The West] didn’t want [pre-election] criticism that the election had been manipulated, lest the Communists get public mileage out of it[, a]nd the Communists regarded it as par for the course that they wouldn’t get a fair deal. I went to see the Zyuganov team and they said, ‘Oh, it’s a waste of time to give you the dossier [on election fraud], you’re not going to do anything about it anyway.’” So much for accountability, even though the prospect of Communists decrying election fraud would have been beyond hilarious.
Consequently, and just in case you were wondering, as a result of the outcome of the 1996 Russian Presidential Election, by the time that Yeltsin finally left office via his resignation on the last day of the 20th century (and with an approval rating of 2%, it should be noted), well, actually, I’ll let the experts in the form of professor emeritus of Russian studies at NYU and Princeton Dr. “Not Sloppy (sidebar — Try the Sloppy SteveTM, now available at Bannon’s Burgers. At Bannon’s Burgers, it’s not just our food that’s greasy.)” Stephen Cohen and Rhodes Scholar David Satter, among others, as well as official statistics, illustrate Uncle Sam’s near decade-long rape of Mother Russia (mmm, incest!):
- By the time that the updated version of Cohen’s Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia was released in October of 2001,
- “Many [Russians were] work[ing] without regular or adequate pay, and most [had] few if any meaningful welfare benefits or savings, living in or near poverty. Three of every four of them [were growing] their own food to survive, even though Russia is predominately urban. Barter [was] often used instead of money (p. 46),” even if that meant paying doctors in doo-doo (p. 240).
- “At the onset of the new millennium, some 50 percent of Russians [were living] below the official poverty line of approximately $45 a month and probably another 25 to 30 percent [were] very near to it (p. 54).”
- “The number of people living in poverty in the former Soviet republics rose from 14 million in 1989 to 147 million even prior to the 1998 crash (pg. 54).”
- “Most estimates of capital flight from Russia since 1992 range[d] from $150 billion to $350 billion. (It increased from about $24 billion a year to $28 billion in 2000 (pg. 244).)”
- “‘Russia’s health profile,’ [according to] one expert, ‘no longer remotely resemble[d] that of a developed country.’ Epidemics of typhus, typhoid, cholera, and other diseases ha[d] reemerged[, while m]ost children, millions of whom [were] no longer attend[ing] school, suffer[ed] from malnutrition (pg. 46).”
- “The worst of this “transition” back to a premodern age [was most evident] in the remote provinces, where a “steady retreat of civilization” [was well] under way and a team of Moscow journalists [who were] looking for upbeat stories in 2001 found only “unrelenting doom and gloom.” An American Peace Corps volunteer reported on one provincial town:
It’s decaying and dying….There is no work at all….Some people are eating dogs, others are giving their last kopecks to buy a loaf of bread….There is no phone service in parts of the town because thieves stole the phone cables.…There is no police force to stop them. Apartments have broken toilets, no gas, running water only in the kitchen, certainly no hot water ever….In fact, these people are actually better off than people in Siberia. Out there some of them don’t have heat or food at all.
- The “reform” plague….even reached Russia’s agricultural heartland, where proximity to food normally cushions life in bad times. In January 2000, a Canadian journalist set out to discover the fruits of his country’s U.S.-style crusade to transform Russia’s large collective farms into small family homesteads. He found this:
The Canadians are long gone. So are the cattle, the fields of grain, the tractors, even the roofs and walls of the cow barns. The buildings are gutted and looted….Most of the farms are dead or dying….The fields are full of weeds and bushes. There has not been a harvest for two years.
- When asked about her hopes for the new millennium, a seventeen-year-old girl in another provincial town spoke for tens of millions of Russians: ‘The twenty-first century? It’s difficult to talk about the twenty-first century when you’re sitting here reading by candlelight. The twenty-first century does not matter. It’s the nineteenth century here (pp. 46–47).’
- In keeping with all things agriculture, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, author Naomi Klein writes,
- “By 1998, more than 80 percent of Russian farms had gone bankrupt, and roughly seventy thousand state factories had closed, creating an epidemic of unemployment. In 1989, before shock therapy, 2 million people in the Russian Federation were living in poverty , on less than $4 a day. By the time the shock therapists had administered their “bitter medicine” in the mid-nineties, 74 million Russians were living below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. That means that Russia’s “economic reforms” can claim credit for the impoverishment of 72 million people in only eight years [please note that Klein’s use of italics, here, does not indicate sarcasm]. By 1996, 25 percent of Russians — almost 37 million people — lived in poverty described as “desperate” (pp. 299–300).”
- “[According to] Russia’s drug czar [is this supposed to be a pun? Not sure if serious] the number of [drug] users went up 900% from 1994–2004, to more than 4 million people, many of them heroin addicts. The drug epidemic has contributed to another silent killer: in 1995, fifty thousand Russians were HIV positive, and in only two years that number doubled; ten years later, according to UNAIDS nearly a million Russians were HIV positive (p. 300).”
- “As soon as shock therapy was introduced in 1992, Russia’s already high suicide rate began to rise; 1994, the peak of Yeltsin’s “reforms,” saw the suicide rate climb to almost double what it had been eight years earlier. Russians also killed each other with much greater frequency: by 1994, violent crime [sidebar — I’ve always found the term “violent crime” to be rather odd, if not also incredibly redundant. Is there such a thing as peaceful crime?] had increased more than four fold (pp. 300–301).”
- Speaking of death, David Satter, both in The Wall Street Journal following Yeltsin’s death in 2007, as well as his 2016 book The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin, notes, respectively, that, “Between 1992 and 1994, the rise in the death rate in Russia was so dramatic that Western demographers did not believe the figures. The toll from murder, suicide, heart attacks and accidents gave Russia the death rate of a country at war; Western and Russian demographers now agree that between 1992 and 2000, the number of “surplus deaths” in Russia — deaths that cannot be explained on the basis of previous trends — was between five and six million persons[,]” and, “During the 1990s, the Russian population fell by 750,000 people a year.”
- Similarly, in Bandits, Gangsters, and the Mafia: Russia, the Baltic States and the CIS Since 1991 (2001), British historian Martin McCauley outlines via Table 10.1 (p. 411) that male life expectancy dropped from 62 in 1992 to 59.8 in 1999, while female life expectancy fell from 73.8 to 72.8 during the same period, with the difference between the sexes in this regard being, as of 2001, “the highest of any industrialized nation (p.318).”
- Finally, Satter would also like you to know, and from the aforementioned text, that, “[i]n the period 1992–1998, Russia’s gross domestic product fell by half. (During the Great Depression, the American economy shrank by 30.5 percent.) The collapse of industrial production was even greater, declining 56 percent between 1992 and 1998 — a worse fall than under German occupation during World War II.”
So all in all, should Russian hacking be a concern moving forward? Absolutely, but when compared to the amount of transgressions that have been both committed on the part of and condoned by the government of the United States in regards to The Motherland since the end of the Cold War, it essentially makes for the geopolitical equivalent of child’s play.
That said, don’t get me wrong — and to borrow extensively from Chris Rock’s 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain — I’m not saying that Putin should have attempted to undermine our democracy — but I understand.
In one last act of hilarity, I’d like you to know that, to date, in my attempts to disseminate this write-up, I have both been called a “Bot” and blocked by eight users on Twitter. How’s that for irony?
Finally, to those who may read and/or have already read (any part of) this article, allow me, here and now, to thank all of you so much for doing, well, so, as it means the world to me; and while I wish that I could thank each and every one of you personally, and for reasons for which I will never comprehend, my previous attempts to do so on this site have been characterized as “spam”, and as such, and despite my attempts to explain myself and my actions, I am, most regrettably, no longer able to do so, at least on Medium, anyway, but please understand that I am beyond forever grateful to you, the reader, for taking any amount of time out of your day in order to give this piece a chance. It really means a lot. Thank you.
Oops, I almost forgot — if you’d like to get in touch, by all means feel free to leave a comment/reply, below, send a private note my way, or even “slide into my DMs” (sidebar — how is that phrase not classified as at least some kind of euphemism?) on Twitter, which is possible whether you opt to “follow” me or not owing to the adjustment of my settings.