Chechens hold Yeltsin's credibility to ransom


ALTHOUGH we must wait until February 15th for an official announcement of his intentions, all the signs are that Boris Yeltsin has made up his mind to run for a second term in Russia's presidential election this June.

Last Monday he said he would "evidently" be a candidate. And on Saturday the president, who has rarely ventured outside the Kremlin in recent months, made ht looked like an election campaign appearance at a "fastfood restaurant in Moscow.

The television news reader; commented that he had evidently not used cash for many months as he fumbled with the new one thousand rouble notes the concrete evidence of inflation to pay for his hamburger.

Yeltsin's aim in visiting the restaurant was clear to revive memories of the time when, as a vigorous, opponent of the corrupt Soviet system, he would descend unannounced on shop's to make sure the people were being served. Then many Russians believed he really cared about their interests. He will find it much harder to convince them now.

The crisis in Dagestan has hardly left him covered in glory. When Chechen rebels seized civilian hostages in the region earlier this month, the emergency was widely seen as an opportunity for Yeltsin to recover popularity he gas lost as a result of starting the war with Chechnya in the first place. Opinion polls showed slightly more than half of Muscovites were prepared to back him as he ordered the storming of Pervomaiskoye village, with the stated aim of saving as many hostages as possible.

But when the army began pounding the village instead of using more surgical tactics, it became obvious that the rescue of the captives was of, secondary, importance to, punishing the rebels and making Yeltsin look tough ahead of the elections.

At one point, the security services justified the use of Grad missiles against the settlement by saying it was certain no hostages were left alive. Yet dozens of hostages emerged after that, some coming out with the rebels who, to Moscow's embarrassment, broke the siege and escaped back into Chechnya.

The Council of Europe may have, been prepared to give Yeltsin the benefit of the doubt, admitting Russia to the club last week, but at home, the president did not look good.

Politicians from across the political spectrum roundly criticised his handling of the hostage crisis. Former hostages were shown on television on Saturday night, complaining about how they had been left for dead by the authorities who, they said, had no real concern for them.

Of course, the public memory is short. By June, Pervomaiskoye will have been, largely forgotten, except by the families who suffered. Chechnya itself is a distant problem if you do not have a son serving in the army there. By focusing on other issues, Yeltsin could still develop a viable election campaign. If only he had a clear idea, of his own political identity.

Despite all his blunders - and the shaky state of his health Yeltsin could still attract many votes if he presented himself as the only man capable of defending Russia's fledgling democratic reforms against communists and nationalists trying to turn back the clock. But instead, since the victory of the left in parliamentary elections in December, he; has appeased his opponents bye sacrificing the last liberals in his cabinet.

The replacement of the pro western Foreign, Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, with the more conservative, Yevgeny Primakov, caused ripples of concern in the US and Europe. The hostage crisis distracted attention from the sacking of the first deputy Prime Minister, Anatoly Chubais, but it was no less significant. Although Yeltsin continues to pay lip service to market reform, it seems the new manager of the national: economy, the former Lada car factory loss, Vladimir Kadannikov, will keep as tight a rein on inflation as Chubais did.

Already Yeltsin has promised money to avert the threat of a miners' strike, which satisfies nobody - neither the miners; who say it is too little, too late, nor the monetarists trying to keep the budget within limits acceptable to western financial organisations.

With his policies since the parliamentary election, Yeltsin hash alienated the liberals, whose support he needed to stand a chance of winning the presidency for a second time. The Yabloko Leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, wills now definitely stand against him. And the leader of Russia's democratic Choice, Yegor Gaidar, is more likely to put his weight behind Yavlinsky, than Yeltsin.

The Communist leader, Mr Gennady Zyuganov, has more twice the support garnered to an opinion poll broadcast by NTV. The survey suggested 11.3 per cent of voters would back Mr Zyuganov for president, with only 5.4 favouring Mr Yeltsin.

Mr Yavlinsky scored 7.7 per cent, while the ultra right nationalist, Mr Vladimir Zhirinovsky, polled third with 7.1; Gen Alexander Lebed was ranked fourth with 5.5 per cent.

The poll was conducted between January 20th and 25th, just days after the army pounded Pervomaiskoye to rubble but failed to prevent Chechen guerrillas escaping with many of their hostages.