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Delightful. This is how many Russians describe the postelection crisis in the United States. For 10 years, Russian elections have been a favorite target of the American media. Finally, Mother Russia is allowed to retaliate. The delicious irony of the moment is that two weeks earlier hardliners in the Russian Parliament dispatched a group of observers to the United States to check on the voting process there. Sick and tired of U.S. preaching and patronizing, Russian conservatives regarded that as a necessary but virtually hopeless propaganda counteroffensive. Ridiculed by the Russian press for their ambitious and seemingly silly enterprise, the conservatives did not suspect they would be present at the most problematic U.S. election in the last 100 years.

Confusion, if not chaos; blunders, if not outright fraud; national frustration, if not panic — it’s hard to believe this is happening in a U.S. presidential election. Radicals in Moscow have been given an unexpected present for the holiday most dear to their hearts: The date of the elections, Nov. 7, also happened to be the 83rd anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia.

The American mishap seems to have been specially tailored to fit the new Russian resentment toward the U.S. The presidential race was too tight for the arcane election system the U.S. has. If the winner had been determined by the popular vote, Vice President Al Gore would have been declared the new president on Tuesday night. Every newspaper and TV channel in the U.S. is asking whether major electoral reform is necessary. According to America Online, 67 percent of Americans are answering in the affirmative. The upheaval is a godsend for Russian hardliners: Haven’t they been saying for years that the U.S. political system is not democratic after all? Many Americans now seem to agree.

What about America’s role as beacon of the modern world? Russian conservatives used to howl in rage while their opponents referred to the U.S. as an exemplary “civilized” state, a role model for all. Now the beacon looks dimmed and flawed, to say the least.

Generally speaking, the last four years have been disastrous for American prestige overseas. First, there was that nightmarish debate about the shape of President Bill Clinton’s penis. Now you have got the Florida thing, which is, in the eyes of many, a scam.

Russians like to believe in conspiracy theories. Now their paranoia is being reinforced. The state causing this havoc is Florida, and who is the brother of Florida’s Gov. Jeb Bush? No matter how unbiased Bush was, is and will be, nothing can persuade Russians that the governor hasn’t been involved in what happened in the state of alligators and beaches, especially in Palm Beach. It’s worth adding that quite a few Americans are getting suspicious, too.

But leaving Jeb Bush out of it, the word more and more often applied to the events in Florida is “fraud.” In all likelihood, nothing of the kind took place and the irregularities of Palm Beach etc., are explained by stupidity and sloppiness — exactly the kind of thing that led to the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade a year and a half ago.

Of course, Russians will never believe that. Notwithstanding the new and widespread feeling of anti-Americanism, they still think of the U.S. in terms of 1950s movies: a country exempt from human error, where planes are always on time, lines do not exist and elections run like Swiss watches. No matter who eventually wins the White House, in Russia he will be known as “this crook.”

The last three presidents Moscow has had — hesitant reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, benevolent bully Boris Yeltsin and the icy manipulator Vladimir Putin — were hardly legitimate, and Russians knew that. Gorbachev was elected not by popular vote but by the Soviet Parliament. The presidential election of 1996 in which Yeltsin claimed victory was a very close race charged with fraud. Putin was carried to the Kremlin on the shoulders of shady tycoons who made the presidential race so short that none of his competitors had time to launch a proper campaign. Russian presidential elections have been a huge embarrassment to the nation: not quite lawful, not too fair and not very democratic.

Now Russians rejoice: Whether it is George W. Bush or Al Gore, the new American president will be a lame duck, almost like Putin. The Florida mishap is a powerful remedy for the inferiority complex of Third World countries, Russia included. Putin must be celebrating. Perhaps he gleefully goes through Western press clippings that accuse him of unfair play.

The only happy person in the U.S. this week must be President Bill Clinton. While wise men confer in anxiety and anger, he is chuckling with delight. He probably hasn’t felt this good in two years. Hillary will be a U.S. senator: That means she will be out of the house for the best part of each week. Gore, who has been conspicuously distancing himself from the handsome failure in the White House, failed as a president even before his term began. Republicans, who have long accused Clinton of immoral behavior, will spend the next quarter of a century whitewashing the stains of Floridagate from their party. Given the confusion, Clinton should evoke the ghost of his buddy Boris Yeltsin and suggest to the nation that he stay on for a third term.

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