On 15 February Boris Yeltsin announced he would run for election for a second term as president.
Last month Oliver Stone's film life of Richard Nixon opened in the United States. It portrayed an incumbent president struggling to end an unpopular war in Vietnam, while trying to use all the powers of his office to secure reelection.
A similar scenario is now playing out in Russia. President Boris Yeltsin knows that he must end the war in Chechnya if he is to stand any chance of reelection on 16 June. At the same time he is using all the levers at his disposal as the head of the Russian state to try to secure reelection.
Yeltsin's strategy is to turn the June election into a contest between himself and Gennadii Zyuganov - that is, between democracy and communism. To do this, he needs to convince other possible democratic candidates, such as Nizhnii Novgorod governor Boris Nemtsov or Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, to keep out of the race. Today Yeltsin completed a trip to Yekaterinburg which was designed to show the world that the Yeltsin bandwagon is on the road.
On 14 February Yeltsin traveled to his home town, Yekaterinburg, for a carefully planned two-day spectacle which was a surreal combination of Soviet agitprop and American electioneering. The houses on the main streets were repainted in preparation for his visit, and meetings were staged to allow Yeltsin to "test" the opinions of his fellow-countrymen and "decide" whether he should stand for reelection. The Potemkin village tradition, which was kept alive in Soviet times through visits to "model workplaces," was joined by US-style media hype. The government chartered planes to fly six hundred journalists to this battered industrial town beyond the Urals to witness Yeltsin's homecoming and the launch of his presidential race.
Yeltsin's itinerary was heavy on nostalgia and patriotism, and light on policy specifics. He visited his father's grave and laid wreaths at two newly-erected monuments to Afghan veterans and World War Two hero Marshall Georgii Zhukov. Yeltsin took a ride on the city's metro system - which he had built when he was head of the regional Communist Party committee in the early 1980s. He visited a confectionery plant, where he asked about the production of certain candies which, again, it had been his duty to keep flowing as regional party boss. However, Yeltsin did not come with a political program to present to the electors. He said he was still working on the details, and would have to return for a second visit.
Yeltsin did not visit Uralmashzavod, a giant engineering plant which has been the mainstay of the region's economy since its founding in 1723. Its 18,000 workers have not been paid since November. They cannot afford to eat in the factory canteen, and the workshops are not heated due to lack of fuel. Even the director at the construction firm where Yeltsin had made his career told reporters that he had stopped supporting Yeltsin after he dissolved the parliament in October 1993.
Russia's NTV reported that 25% of local citizens want Yeltsin to run, although national surveys show him getting only 5 or 6% support. Reuters said that the governing party, Our Home is Russia, won more votes than the Communists in Yekaterinburg in December's Duma election. However, voting returns for the whole region show that the party founded by local governor Eduard Rossel came first, and Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party beat Our Home is Russia into third place.
It remains unclear whether Yeltsin will be able to garner enough support to make it into the second round run-off election in June -- where his opponent would presumably be Gennadii Zyuganov. The polls now suggest that Zyuganov would win a run-off round against Yeltsin. However, the leftist parties taken together won less than 35% of the vote in the Duma campaign. A majority of Russians probably do not want to elect a communist as president. If Yeltsin and Zyuganov face off in the second round, a majority of voters could support "none of the above", and the elections would have to be repeated.
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