Yeltsin is seen as standing in the way


AGAINST the advice of Russian liberals, not to mention his wife, Naina, Boris Yeltsin has thrown his hat into the ring as a candidate in Junes presidential election.

Launching his campaign in his home city of Yekaterinburg last Thursday, the 65 year old and not entirely healthy Kremlin leader said some people had urged him to retire with dignity, but this would be irresponsible as he must see his task of reforming Russia through to the end. He also promised to end the damaging war in Chechnya within four months.

His announcement that he was running, made in an alarmingly hoarse voice which he put down to the fact that he had been talking to the crowds in 20 degrees of frost, was met with concern by western leaning democrats and satisfaction by the resurgent Communist Party.

Yelena Bonner, widow of the late human rights campaigner, Andrei Sakharov, said Mr Yeltsin had blocked the way for younger democrats who might have stood a chance of beating off the communist challenge. Gennady Zyuganov, nominated by the Communist Party as its candidate on the very same day that the Kremlin leader declared his intentions, said he regarded Mr Yeltsin as a "weak rival". Opinion polls show the incumbent President is the under dog of the campaign.

Certainly, at first glance, the way now seems open for the communists to regain power in Russia after nearly five years in the wilderness following the failed hardline coup of August 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.

While the liberals have squabbled, refusing to support Mr Yeltsin because of the war in Chechnya, yet failing to find an alternative candidate acceptable to all, the communists have shown remarkable political discipline. At the special conference which nominated Mr Zyuganov, other left wing figures sacrificed their own ambitions to give him the best chance at the polls in exchange for promises of high office in a future collective leadership.

Mr Zyuganov (51), a balding social scientist from the farming region of Oryol, is now regarded as the election front runner. He has wooed pensioners and millions of workers in the crisis hit state sector by protesting at the social cost of market reform. Mr Yeltsin's promise to find money for unpaid wages to miners, teachers and others represented a last minute conversion to humane politics which would convince nobody, he said last week.

Yet with four whole months to go to the election, the outcome cannot be considered a foregone conclusion. The communists may yet falter while Mr Yeltsin may find the flexibility to learn from and correct "his mistakes.

The communists may look united, but sheltering under their umbrella are a range of politicians from Stalinists to Scandinavian style Social Democrats. Observers have already noted how Mr Zyuganov shows a moderate face when he meets western business leaders but is much more orthodox when addressing domestic audiences. The election campaign will give other politicians the chance to probe these contradictions.

Mr Zyuganov may regard Mr Yeltsin as a pushover. But he does fear non communist nationalists, in particular the charismatic Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose party came a close second behind the communists in December's parliamentary elections.

THE outrageous Zhirinovsky, already well known to the world for his threats to nuke those who oppose Russian neo imperialism, launched his campaign for the presidency on February 11th by confirming his civil marriage vows to his wife of 25 years in an Orthodox church ceremony. The fascist playboy, who has been repeatedly photographed in the company of scantily clad models, now has a new slogan, "Purity, order, security and prosperity".

Mr Yeltsin must hope that Mr Zyuganov and Mr Zhirinovsky split the protest vote against the present reforming administration. He must also hope that liberals now fall in behind him instead of arguing further. The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, whom the west would have regarded as a dream candidate, has already said he will support his president. But the leader of the Yabloko grouping, the economist, Gregori Yavlinsky, still intends to run a campaign of his own.

The single biggest problem which Mr Yeltsin must solve to stand a chance in the election is the question of Chechnya. Earlier this month, the liberal governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Boris Nemtsov, gathered one million signatures against the war in his city alone, giving the Kremlin leader a clear idea of public feeling on the matter.

Mr Yeltsin has vowed to untie the Chechen knot before the election, but he is still grappling with one little question: how?