On July 3, 1996, Boris Yeltsin pulled off a remarkable political comeback when he was elected to a second term as president of Russia. A prominent Communist Party official in the old Soviet Union who became an opposition figure when he was ousted from the ruling Politburo in 1988, Yeltsin had been elected president of the Russian Federation in 1991 when it was still a part of the Soviet Union. By early 1996, with a mixed record on economic reforms and an unpopular military campaign in the breakaway region of Chechnya, his approval ratings had fallen below 10 percent. But with assistance from newly enriched Russian capitalists and a group of American political operatives,Yeltsin was able to convince a majority of voters that electing his chief opponent—Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov—would be an unacceptable return to the Soviet undemocratic past.
The election was hailed by many as a triumph not only for Yeltsin, but also for Russian democracy. Most observers agreed that it had been carried out with minimal fraud and violence. After his defeat, Zyuganov sent Yeltsin a congratulatory telegram rather than calling for strikes or protests. It was a far cry from the one-candidate elections held under the old Soviet Union.
Russia held its next presidential election in March 2000. Vladimr Putin, a former spy who had been serving as acting president since Yeltsin resigned abruptly at the close of 1999, emerged victorious. Despite the successful and peaceful transfer of power from Yeltsin to his designated successor, democracy’s future in Russia remains uncertain. “Free elections are necessary for democracy,” states political science and Russian studies professor Stephen Cohen, “but they are not sufficient.” Obstacles to a stable democracy include an insecure middle class, the lack of the rule of law, and Russia’s long tradition of authoritarian rule. Critics of Yeltsin pointed to his tendency to rule by presidential decree, ignoring the legislative and judicial branches of government. Whether democracy becomes a permanent fixture in Russian society under Yeltsin’s successor remains open to question.