Gorbachev says he will challenge Yeltsin in June presidential election


THE announcement by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that he will stand against President Yeltsin in the elections on June 16th is a daring move by a man revered in the west but unpopular almost despised in his native country.

Mr Gorbachev stands at 0.6 per cent in the opinion polls, well behind the leading candidates Mr Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party President Yeltsin the ultra right leader, Mr Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the only true democrat with a chance of election, the economist, Mr Grigory Yavlinsky.

But the former president is hopeful that a strong campaign will bring him into contention.

Highly unpopular among Russians, due to the hardship and confusion engendered by his introduction of perestroika, he now feels that people are beginning to see him in a new light.

"After the bloody assault on the Russian Parliament and the events in Chechnya, people are beginning to say `Gorbachev would not have allowed that'," he said.

He has thrown his hat in the ring at a time when democratic candidates who oppose Mr Zyuganov and Mr Yeltsin with equal vehemence are bitterly divided by personality clashes.

His only hope of becoming a real contender would be to gain united democratic support and a fair share of all important television coverage. President Yeltsin has sacked the head of Russian state television and is expected to install someone who will obey presidential commands during the campaign.

President Yeltsin's antipathy to Mr Gorbachev has led in the past to the withdrawal of a state car and government sequestration of office space for the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow.

Last week the Boston Globe, quoting senior US intelligence officials, said President Yeltsin's security chief, Gen Alexander Korzhakov, was leading a group code named Felix which is plotting to cancel the June 16th poll or, failing that to falsify the results.

The most benign scenario was for a union between Russia and Belarus which would be used to cancel the vote.

Yesterday, at a function in Moscow to welcome the Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, President Yeltsin said he was in favour of a union and that he hoped it could be achieved under his presidency.

Russia was admitted yesterday as the 39th member state of the Council of Europe, despite misgivings over human rights, particularly in the war zone of Chechnya.