Russian electorate provided with huge variety in its presidential candidates
ALTHOUGH you may not have noticed it, there is another presidential election this year and it could be more important than the "big one" in the United States.
A return to communist rule in Russia is likely to have a greater impact on world stability than even the election of Pat Buchanan as US president. With less than four months to go before Russians go to the polls, there are four main contenders for the second most powerful post on Earth but already 42 candidates have put their names, forward.
These include President Yeltsin, the Communist leader Mr Gennady Zyuganov, the mad hatter of the ultra right Mr Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the only truly democratic runner, Mr Grigory Yavlinsky, the right wing Gen Alexander Lebed and a motley crew of also rans ranging from former president Mr Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev to some shady characters with criminal records who are availing of the immunity from arrest which is afforded to candidates by the constitution.
Out in front at the moment is Mr Zyuganov of the communists, with 18 per cent voters favouring him in the most recent poll. He is playing it cool, attacking Mr Yeltsin as a "weak politician" and doing his utmost to like a statesman. Zyuganov is a dull performer but so far has managed to give the appearance of a stable and sober candidate.
In second place in the polls on 11 per cent is Grigory Yavnsky, a liberal economist who believes in the twin track approach of democratic as well as economic progress. He is seen as pro western but, unlike Mr Yeltsin, has not received public backing from western leaders.
This could be an advantage with an electorate which blames western economic pressure for its current woes. Moves in the past few days to form a united democratic front could boost Yavlinsky's chances.
Lying third is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the "Mad Vlad" of the tabloids. His recently formed alliance with Jean Marie Le Pen, his flamboyant wedding ceremony to his wife of 25 years and his bizarre statements about having group sex with the entire Russian electorate have ensured that he continues to be talked about but, on 9 per cent in the recent poll, things are not looking good for him.
Gen Lebed gained 8 per cent in that poll, with President Yeltsin in fifth place on 7 per cent. Mr Gorbachev with a mere 1 per cent, appears to be less popular than the incumbent.
BUT President Yeltsin will do better than it now appears and he is frantically trying to gain ground. In a vast country in which television is the most powerful instrument of campaign, he has sacked the head of the state controlled TV channel for "telling lies" and replaced him with a more amenable type. He even threatened to sack the government of Mr Viktor Chernomyrdin just 24 hours after he had given the Prime Minister his unreserved support".
Workers who haven't been paid for months have been promised cash coming up to polling day and a crackdown on corruption has begun with the indictment of former acting prosecutor general Alexander Ilyushenko, a man Mr Yeltsin tried for months to appoint but whose nomination was blocked by parliament.
If none of this works, according to senior US intelligence sources quoted in the Boston Globe, a group of KGB men led by Mr Yeltsin's security chief Gen Alexander Korzhakov is preparing to have the election postponed or failing that, to cook the books when the results come in.
There are other choices, including the country's most famous con man and a trade unionist who says he wants to get to the Kremlin but won't bother to vote on June 17th.
Should a man in uniform attract your political fancy, there are plenty front which to choose. Leading the military field is Gen Alexander, Ivanovich Lebed who stayed as commander of the Russian 14th army in Moldova even after that country achieved independence.
Lebed's Congress of Russian Society did poorly in the parliamentary, elections in December but he was the overwhelming victor in the of Tula, an armaments centre south of Moscow. Gen Lebed wants to be Russia's Pinochet, is a fervent nationalist and has criticised the conduct but not the existence of the war in Chechnya. He is being wooed to form a coalition with Mr Zyuganov's communists.
Gen Alexander Vladimirovich Rutskoy has already been president of Russia, according to the parliament which was blasted out of existence in 1993. A burly man with a moustache the size of a fully grown Yorkshire terrier, Gen Rutskoy was Mr Yeltsin's vice president until things turned sour.
THE parliament declared the impeachment of Mr Yeltsin in September 1993 and Gen "Sasha" Rutskoy stepped into the job he always coveted. His presidency lasted a little over a fortnight but after a spell in prison Sasha has lived to fight another day. His chances are negligible.
Gen Boris Vsevolodovich Gromov's surname means "thunder". He is a 53 year old veteran who commanded the 40th Russian Army in Afghanistan. Nowadays, Gen Gromov thunders loudly against President Yeltsin and ear splittingly against the war in Chechnya.
Sergei Panteleyevich Mavrodi is one of the best known men in Russia and is no stranger to politics, having been a Duma deputy for the Mytishchinski region of Moscow. His fame, however, comes from elsewhere.
His securities company, MMM, pulled off the biggest fraud in Russian history by involving millions of people in a pyramid scheme which promised wealth and free apartments. It even ran its own soap opera featuring a nondescript character called Lyonya Golubkov who invested in MMM, travelled the world, bought an apartment in Paris for his wife and then, vanished as quickly as the money of the millions of investors.
Under Russian law, candidates for the presidency are immune from prosecution, so Sergei Panteleyevich should be on the loose until shortly after the result is announced, unless of course he is elected president, in which case he will be immune for another five years.
Two men who literally "soldiered together" when the old Russian parliament was bombarded on President Yeltsin's order are Viktor Ivanovich Anpilov of the Russian Communist Workers' Party and Alexander Petrovich Barkashov, a militant fascist who heads a political organisation called Russian National Unit which is believed to have an armed wing.
Alexander Sergeyevich Alekseyev is a 42 year old trade unionist. He is disgusted at the way things, have turned out in the new Russia and wants to do something about it. But his campaign has been lethargic in the extreme and he admits that when June 17th comes around, he probably won't bother voting.