Five years ago, when he became Russia's first elected president, Mr Boris Yeltsin carried all before him. With over 57 per cent of the votes in the first round, he defeated five other candidates, and for a while at least it seemed the shambles of the collapse of the Soviet Union would be successfully overcome. How much of the intervening decline of economic and social reform can be ascribed to his own unpredictability and lack of reforming zeal, and how much to the sheer ungovernability of a country as vast and fractionalised as Russia, is open to question. But Chechenya has become the symbol of his presidency's ineptness and loss of direction.
Mr Yeltsin's decision to seek re election at the end of last week was not unexpected, in spite of his two heart attacks in the last six months and his disastrous showing in the opinion polls. The most recent ones have suggested that he is supported by about 6 per cent of the voters. Mr Gennady Zyuganov, the communist leader who announced his candidacy on the same day as Mr Yeltsin, has about 20 per cent, and two other potential candidates the reforming economist Mr Grigory Yavlinsky and the ultra nationalist Mr Vladimir Zhirinovsky - are also ahead with about 10 per cent each.
Not unreasonably, Mr Zyuganov has described the President as "vulnerable". The dilemma Mr Yeltsin faces reflects the widespread dissatisfaction with an economic reform programme that has disrupted the lives of most citizens and so far has convinced no one that better times are coming. Large fortunes have been made by a small number of people and corruption has become endemic.
In the next four months Mr Yeltsin must somehow disengage himself from the consequences of a situation to which his own inconsistency and autocratic instincts have contributed. He has alienated the reformers and democrats with whose help he came to power, and is unlikely to win them back. His campaign, to judge by his opening statements will be a mishmash of populism and dire warnings of the dangers of electing a communist or an ultra nationalist persident. "I am for reform, but not at any price," he declared last week. I am in favour of correcting policy, but not of turning back. I want neither utopia nor dogma as the basis of Russian policy, but practical needs." On Chechenya he blew hot and cold, promising an end to the conflict by election day, but clearly on Russian terms.
This could conceivably be a winning hand, given Mr Yeltsin's advantage as the man in office and the inflexibility of his opponents' support though Mr Zyugano has been broadening his appeal and a number of minor left wing parties have rowed in behind him. The President's trump card may be that the international lending institutions and foreign governments generally see his re election as the best available chance for Russia's stability and economic development. The German chancellor, Dr Kohl, who began a visit to Moscow yesterday, will underline this by seeing none of the other presidential candidates. But Mr Yeltsin will be left in no doubt that equivocation over reform will not impress outside investors.