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April 7, 1996, Sunday


Yeltsin's Good Week: He's Back in Race

By MICHAEL SPECTER ( News Analysis ) 1054 words
MOSCOW, April 6 -- It has been a long time since President Boris N. Yeltsin has had a week this good. He started it last Sunday by announcing a peace plan for Chechnya and he ended it late this afternoon, telling 2,000 core supporters, "We will win in June so that Russia can never be called an evil empire again."

In between, he set off with a fistful of promises to Communist-dominated southern Russia and watched with delight as his once anemic ratings in opinion polls edged within striking distance of his main opponent in the presidential race, Gennadi A. Zyuganov, the Communist leader.

People who said he was through were wrong," said Boris A. Grushin, a sociologist who runs a well-known polling firm here. "He has a long race left and may or may not win. But the idea that he isn't a serious candidate must now be discarded."

Mr. Yeltsin's current success may well be ephemeral. But after months in which he was hardly even seen in public, he has suddenly become very public and highly energetic.

In a single week he has reminded people of the power of the presidency -- dispensing largess in the form of raises, pensions, tax breaks and home loans like a benevolent czar -- and the stark choice the voters will surely face in the election in June.

When Mr. Yeltsin talks about the Communist era these days, he talks about Stalin, he talks about labor camps and he talks about sorrow.

And he is talking about it a lot. On Friday he suggested that three leading Communist legislators should be in prison, not in Parliament. The attack drew sharp protests but it hit its mark: the Communists are now responding to him. It is no longer the other way around.

Mr. Yeltsin still has many significant problems. He has no real economic strategy, other than to promise nearly everyone in Russia money to improve their lives. His peace plan for Chechnya has already faltered so badly that today he was forced to send the Chechen rebel leader, Dzhokhar M. Dudayev, a telegram promising him that Russian military activity had stopped.

It is not known whether the telegram got to Mr. Dudayev, but as usual tonight, Russian television reported widespread fighting in the secessionist republic in southern Russia.

Opinion polls show that Mr. Yeltsin, while gaining on Mr. Zyuganov, is still deeply disliked. But Mr. Yeltsin seems to understand that. Perhaps his most notable achievement this week was in recognizing voters' anger and trying to humble himself before a Russian public that loves repentance almost as much as it loves a strong, occasionally wayward leader.

"I can tell you honestly that I am not satisfied with the job I have done during my presidency," Mr. Yeltsin said today before the gathering of his major supporters, which was broadcast on national television. "Nearly half of the population lives badly while 10 percent live very well."

"Parasitic capital is being formed, and the national wealth is being divided but not multiplied," he continued, speaking lines that almost completely mirror the major points of Mr. Zyuganov's most common stump speech.

Mr. Yeltsin seems to have taken a bold step. He has decided that if he can simply adopt some of the Communists' most powerful polemics -- about the weak state of the nation, the troubled progress of economic reform, the need once again to be a world power while protecting the rights of plain working people -- the voters might support him.

He has little choice. Working Russians are fed up with broken promises and the deteriorating quality of their lives. That, and not ideology, is why they often support the Communists.

In his trip through the Belgorod region this week, Mr. Yeltsin seemed to understand that. He made a big show of visiting beautiful new brick homes that could not have been imagined only a few years ago.

But that is where the 10 percent who are so hated live, and most of them support the President. For the rest, he has decided to bank on the hope that no matter what they think of him, people will not vote to return this country to the absolute control of Communism.

The question now is whether those people are going to believe his many new promises. If a man who has not been paid for three months suddenly starts receiving his salary on time -- and that is happening across Russia now -- does that make him forget the last three months, or will it only make him think he is being manipulated for political reasons?

The answer is not yet clear.

"We know what his shortcoming are," said Boris A. Lokoltkin, a metal worker in the Belgorod region, which Mr. Yeltsin visited on his first campaign trip this week. "We understand what he is doing now. But that doesn't mean we have to vote for the Communists. Maybe we can use this election to get him to change."

He already has -- at least on paper. Mr. Yeltsin said today that he thought that reform should progress, though "with corrections." He has jettisoned many of his liberal advisers and replaced them with people who take a far harder line on the economy and foreign affairs.

But he has also clearly decided that even abasing himself to a man he has hunted for a year -- Mr. Dudayev -- is better than offering no peace agreement at all.

"Yeltsin is constantly changing," said Igor Klyamkin, head of the Public Opinion Foundation, a liberal polling group. "But the voters will strip all the promises away, and he knows it. In the end it is a very basic and significant choice. It's going to be the reforms or the Communists. This week Yeltsin finally seemed to understand that. Now he has to get the voters to understand it too."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company