RUSSIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: 2000
CRS Report for Congress
Russian Presidential Election: 2000
Stuart D. Goldman
Specialist in Russian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s resignation at the end of 1999 elevated his little-
known Premier, Vladimir Putin, to Acting President and set the scene for a presidential
election on March 26, 2000 that Putin is considered certain to win. There is uncertainty
in Russia and the West as to what sort of leader Putin might be. Some view him as an
authoritarian, others as a pragmatic reformer. There is evidence to support either view.
The character and policies of post-Yeltsin Russia affect a variety of important U.S.
political, military, and economic interests.
On December 31, 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned, six
months before the scheduled end of his second term. Vladimir Putin, whom Yeltsin had
elevated from relative obscurity only five months earlier to become Russia’s fifth premier
in 18 months, automatically became Acting President. An election was scheduled for
March 26, 2000. Putin’s political popularity soared soon after he became premier, based
largely on his tough policy toward the secessionist republic of Chechnya and his image as
a vigorous, effective, and stable leader. Putin was almost universally expected to win the
election by a wide margin, the main question being whether he would get over 50% of the
vote, thus avoiding a second-round run-off election.
The post-Yeltsin succession is an historic and momentous event. Russia faces grave
challenges to political, economic, and social stability at home and questions about its role
in the world. Putin, who is 47 years old and a former KGB foreign intelligence officer, has
very little of what could be called a political track record. Many consider him a political
enigma. The policies he adopts in dealing with Russia’s political and economic ills could
profoundly influence the country’s future course of development, a matter of serious U.S.
interest. Also, Putin’s future national security policies are likely to affect vital U.S. and
congressional interests on such issues as containing the proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction, national missile defense, the future of NATO, geo-strategic stability in
Eurasia, and U.S. defense requirements.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Yeltsin’s second term was due to end in June 2000. A presidential election was
scheduled for June 4. In late 1999, he was the lamest of lame ducks, with a public
approval rating in the low single digits. Most Russians blamed him for the country’s
economic and social distress: contraction of the GDP by one-third to one-half; wages and
pensions chronically in arrears; rising unemployment; a large percentage of the population
reduced to poverty; a high mortality rate and shrinking population; and rampant official
corruption and criminality. Yeltsin’s political problems were compounded by recurrent
health crises, increasingly erratic leadership, burgeoning financial scandals involving his1
inner circle, and association with a group of highly visible and unpopular oligarchs.
In the early 1990s, Yeltsin won a reputation as a forceful, albeit erratic, leader with
an ambitious reform agenda. Later, as his political liabilities increased, his popularity
waned, and his physical (and according to many observers, his mental) health declined,
Yeltsin’s political maneuvering appeared to be reduced to little more than personal will to
power. His abrupt resignation on New Years Eve surprised most observers. He gave little
explanation and quickly disappeared from public view.
The most likely explanation for Yeltsin’s resignation is that he and/or his inner circle
concluded that there was no realistic possibility of extending his rule beyond June 2000
and that their best chance for a soft landing2 was to assure a politically reliable successor.
In late 1999, Putin was the obvious, and virtually the only, choice for that role. He had
been plucked by Yeltsin from complete obscurity to head the Federal Security Service (the
domestic branch of the former KGB) in 1998 and then, to widespread astonishment, as
Premier a year later. Putin had no power base of his own and owed his meteoric rise
solely to his Kremlin sponsor(s). Putin’s popular support was demonstrated convincingly
in the Duma election in December 1999. Parties whose only distinguishing characteristic
were association with Putin, scored impressive victories, the first time pro-Kremlin parties
had done well in a Duma election.3
Having decided that Putin was the preferred successor, the Yeltsin team manipulated
the political process one last time. Yeltsin’s resignation advanced the election date from
June to March, reducing the period during which Putin might suffer a damaging battlefield
reversal in Chechnya or some other political embarrassment. It also threw Putin’s rivals
off balance, reducing their time to organize effective campaigns and forcing them to run
against an acting president seen as successfully prosecuting a popular war.
1 The oligarchs are immensely rich tycoons accused of using political connections and
corrupt practices to win control and ownership of vast previously state-owned assets.
2 I.e., to avoid criminal prosecution for such acts as violently suppressing parliament in 1993,
launching the disastrous 1994-1996 war in Chechnya, and profiting from “crony capitalism,” and
to retain their privileges and riches. Putin’s first official act on December 31, 1999 was to sign a
decree exempting all presidents of Russia from criminal prosecution after leaving office.
3 See CRS Report RS20437, Russia's December 1999 Legislative Election: Outcome and
Implications for U.S. interests, by James Nichol, January 18, 2000.
The Election Campaign
The Russian Central Electoral Commission (CEC) eventually certified 12 candidates
for the election. Three politicians who were viewed in mid-1999 as strong contenders,
however, decided not to run. Two of these, former Premier Yevgenni Primakov and
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, formed a political alliance in opposition to the Yeltsin
regime. Primakov became the presumed frontrunner to succeed Yeltsin. During the Duma
election campaign, they were relentlessly attacked in the state-controlled mass media and
their coalition was decisively defeated. Both men decided that running against Putin was
futile. Primakov eventually endorsed Putin. Aleksandr Lebed, the charismatic retired
army general, now Governor of Krasnoyarsk, also decided not to run. That left Gennady
Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party and a lack-luster campaigner, as Putin’s main
rival. Some say that Zyuganov conceded defeat in advance and was more interested in
maintaining a working relationship with Putin and holding his party together than trying4
to win the election. With Putin’s victory seemingly inevitable, he was endorsed by a large
number of national and regional political leaders, including all former premiers. Even the
head of the Agrarian Party endorsed him, despite Putin’s advocacy of agrarian land reform,
which is anathema to the Agrarian Party.
When the campaign period officially opened in February, Putin, with a huge lead in
the polls and the advantages of incumbency and the enthusiastic support of state-controlled
media,5 adopted an above-politics strategy. He declined the free television spots reserved
for candidates’ ads, refused to debate his opponents, and offered no formal political
platform.6 Putin has not had to run a traditional campaign. Broadcast news coverage of
the Acting President has been so extensive and fawning that some call it “all Putin, all the
time.” The great majority of print and broadcast media have also cast the war in Chechnya
in the most favorable light for Putin, heralding military victories, minimizing or ignoring
military and civilian casualties, and denouncing opponents of the war as traitors. Although
Putin is taciturn and uncharismatic, he has managed to turn this to his advantage, in
contrast to discredited flamboyant politicians and their excessive promises. Also, although
Putin is Yeltsin’s chosen successor, he benefits from contrasts with the unpopular former
president. Putin’s youth and physical vigor (he has a black belt in judo and flies in jet
fighter planes) and his modest, sober, no-nonsense style boost his popularity partly because
he seems so unlike Yeltsin.
According to the election law, if a presidential candidate receives an outright majority
of the total votes cast, and over 50% of the eligible voters participate, then that candidate
is the winner. If no candidate wins a simple majority in the first round, the two top vote-
getters compete in a run off election three weeks later (April 16). If fewer than 50% of
4 Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), Russian Election Monitor, “Zyuganov Runs
Tepid Campaign,” March 22, 2000.
5 Two of Russia’s three nationwide television networks are state-owned. The third, while nominally
independent, is hostile to Zyuganov.
6 Putin’s February 25 “Open Letter to the Russian Voters,” consisting mainly of general goals and
platitudes, can be found in English on the Putin web site, http://www.putin2000.ru/07. The full
text of the book, In the First Person, based on six long interviews with Putin, published on March
eligible voters participate, then a new election is held four months later. With Putin’s
refusal to campaign as a candidate, and the outcome considered all but inevitable, some
critics referred to a “virtual election.” Some of the oligarchs and Yeltsin-loyalists,
however, reportedly tried to deprive Putin of an outright majority in the first round. Their
strategy presumably was that if Putin were forced into a run off, he would emerge with a
weaker mandate and be more dependent on them.7
Who Is Vladimir Putin?
Putin was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on October 7, 1952. He graduated
from the Law Department of Leningrad State University in 1975 and entered the foreign
intelligence branch of the KGB, specializing in German-speaking countries. He is fluent
in German and speaks some English. He served in East Germany from 1985-1990. After
returning to Leningrad, he became associated with one of his former law professors,
Anatoly Sobchak, who was elected head of the Leningrad City Council (mayor) in 1990.
Sobchak became a leading liberal democratic politician and Putin rose in the Sobchak
administration to the position of First Deputy Head of the St. Petersburg government in
One of his responsibilities was attracting and facilitating foreign investment in the city. In
1995, Putin moved to Moscow, sponsored by Anatoly Chubais, another former
Leningrader and one of the leading Kremlin “young reformers” favored by the West. Putin
initially worked in the Kremlin under Pavel Borodin.8 In two years he rose to the position
of Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration. In July 1998, Yeltsin appointed Putin
Head of the Federal Security Service (FSB, Russia’s domestic security agency), and in
March 1999 also made him head of the presidential Security Council. Despite his rapid
advancement, up to this point Putin maintained a very low public profile. That changed
dramatically in August 1999, when Yeltsin dismissed Premier Sergei Stepashin and named
Putin in his place, adding that the little-known Putin was his choice to succeed him as
president. Initially, many viewed Putin as a hapless puppet, subject to Yeltsin’s whims.
But within weeks, Putin’s forceful response to incursions into the Russian Republic of
Dagestan by radical Islamic fighters from Chechnya and to terrorist apartment house
bombings that killed hundreds in Moscow and other cities established Putin as Russia’s
rising political star, radically transforming the political landscape and setting the stage for
his election as Russia’s next president.
In word and deed, Putin’s record since Yeltsin’s resignation is ambiguous, perhaps
intentionally so, since he is engaged in an election campaign. There is something in Putin’s
record to appeal to all parts of the political spectrum. Some, who see him as authoritarian,
cite such factors as these:
He spent most of his career in security agencies, the KGB and FSB, and appointed many
colleagues from those agencies to key posts since becoming Acting President.
7 FBIS, “Elites’ Fears Growing That Putin Mandate Will Make New President Too Strong,”
February 15, 2000.
8 Borodin is one of the key Kremlin insiders named by Swiss prosecutors as a target for criminal
investigation in the Kremlin’s financial scandals.
His political rise rests on the war in Chechnya and the decision to accept high Chechen
civilian casualties in order to avoid high Russian military casualties.
He has pledged to increase spending on weapons procurement by 50% this year.
He has increased government control over the mass media, which ruthlessly smeared his
opponents in the Duma and presidential elections, and constantly refers to the need to
strengthen the state and impose order.
He opposes amending the Russian Constitution, which concentrates enormous power in
the president’s hands and, if wielded by a more authoritarian and disciplined man than
Yeltsin, could provide the means to move Russia away from democratization.
Those who believe that Putin seeks a western oriented, democratic, capitalist Russia
cite the following:
He was a protégé of the liberal reformers Sobchak and Chubais and worked effectively in
St Petersburg to promote foreign investment in a market economy.
He refers constantly to the need to strengthen the protection of private property and
investors’ rights in order to attract vitally needed foreign investment.
He lived abroad for five years, understands capitalism and international finance, and
realizes that Russia is so economically weak and dependent on the West that a
confrontational posture toward NATO would be disastrous for Russia.
He overruled his generals and ended Russia’s year-long confrontation with NATO
(resulting from Moscow’s strenuous objections to NATO’s military intervention in
Kosovo), and revived regular operation of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council,
declaring that Russia does not see NATO as an enemy.
Some analysts assert that these contradictory indications tend to balance each other,
with the result that Putin should be viewed as a pragmatic statist. Others argue that: 1)
Putin’s background and history prior to 1999 provide an altogether inadequate basis to
predict what sort of president he might be, and; 2) everything he has said and done since
December 31 has to be discounted as part of a short, intense election campaign.
Therefore, they conclude, Putin should be considered essentially unknown and
unpredictable until after the election, when he will begin to establish a record on which he
can be judged.
Putin’s Challenges and their Implications for the United States
Putin, as President of Russia, faces a number of major challenges requiring decisions
that could shape the course of Russia’s future evolution, its role in the world, and its
relations with the United States. In the realm of foreign and defense policy, those include:
U.S. pressure to modify the ABM Treaty to permit the United States to pursue a program
of national missile defense (NMD). This is viewed with alarm in Moscow, which lacks the
financial and technical means to match such a program at this time, and is cited by Duma
leaders as a reason for their continued delay in ratifying the START II Treaty. The Missile
Defense Act of 1999 (P.L. 106-38) calls for a U.S. decision on NMD in 2000. Putin faces
the same deadline.
Congress and the Administration have been pressing Moscow to halt its transfer of nuclear
reactor and ballistic missile technology to Iran, including through the Iran Nonproliferation
Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-178). Putin must choose between further antagonizing the United
States (and risking the sanctions in the new law) or halting the technology transfers to Iran
and risking loss of a cooperative relationship with that key regional player as well as
billions of dollars from reactor and weapons sales.
Putin has said he will increase Russian spending on weapons procurement by 50% this
year. The defense industrial sector is in desperate condition because of huge cuts in
defense spending imposed by the Yeltsin regime. It is not clear whether Russia has the
financial means to fund this increase in defense spending – nor what the response of the
United States and its allies might be, possibly expressed through their dominance of
international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the IMF, World Bank, and London and
Paris clubs of creditors, on which Russia is highly dependent.
Some of Putin’s most daunting challenges involve political economy. He has
described Russia’s economic misery in grimly realistic terms, saying that these tasks are
his top priority and amount to nothing less than saving the Russian state from collapse.
In order to achieve his stated economic goals, Putin must build a political consensus for
moving ahead with specific economic reforms and persuade the Duma to enact legislation
reforming taxation, land-owning, and commercial law. There is entrenched institutional
and political opposition to all of these. The outcome will be crucial for determining
whether the investment climate in Russia is transformed, an issue of great commercial
importance to the United states, which is admirably suited to participate on a large scale
in key sectors of the Russian economy, such as energy, telecommunications,
transportation, and food processing.
The Putin government must try to negotiate debt-relief with foreign government creditors
(the Paris club). Russia’s foreign debt burden, much of it inherited from the Soviet period,
is presently unsustainable by Moscow – and uncollectable by its creditors. The United
States is not among the most heavily exposed creditors. Germany is. Nevertheless, the
U.S. voice in IFIs such as the Paris club is influential, and its interests –economic and
political–in the outcome are substantial.
Another challenge facing Putin is to define his policy toward and relations with the
oligarchs who dominate so much of the Russian economy and mass media. Some analysts
believe that this will be crucial in determining the prospects for Russia’s transition toward
democracy and a functioning market economy.9
Moscow has declared victory in phase one of its military campaign in Chechnya and largely
ignored U.S. and other criticism of the high human costs. After the election, will Putin
modify his uncompromisingly tough policy toward Chechnya? Should the United States
and the West define the Putin regime in terms of its Chechen policy?
9 Lee S. Wolosky, “Putin’s Plutocrat Problem,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2000.