Ryzhkov's pallid campaign poses little threat to Yeltsin

June 05, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The tall, friendly-faced, gray-suited man is candidate for the presidency of a country of 150 million people. He is running second in the polls. He was making a major campaign appearance in a capital city of 10 million.

But the hall, which could hold about 600 people, was only half-full. And as the man spoke, people quietly rose and slipped out of the hall.

"The political and social situation in the country is in crisis. I'm not afraid of that word," said Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, 61, former Soviet prime minister and would-be president of the Russian Federation, to scientists here yesterday.

Production is plummeting. Inflation is in triple digits. Food is rationed. There is serious talk of famine.

And Mr. Ryzhkov is not afraid to call it a crisis.

The trouble is, most of Mr. Ryzhkov's would-be constituents were not afraid to call it a crisis back in 1985 when he became prime minister. The crisis since then has only worsened, and most of it happened on Mr. Ryzhkov's watch.

Though people frequently used the word "decent" about him and praised his honesty and sincerity as prime minister, his popularity with the public declined along with the economy.

By last fall, according to one poll, a mere 3 percent of Soviet citizens approved of his record, and on several occasions, huge rallies gathered outside the Kremlin to demand his resignation.

A heart attack last December permitted him to make a graceful exit, making it unnecessary for his loyal boss, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, to dismiss him. He was awarded a fat pension and given his government dacha, or country house, and might have been expected to write his memoirs and become a sort of elder statesman.

But Mr. Ryzhkov, having recovered from his heart attack, decided instead to challenge the country's most popular politician, Boris N. Yeltsin, for the newly created post of Russian president in the June 12 election.

With the encouragement of local Communist Party officials who hate and fear the ex-Communist Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Ryzhkov was nominated by no fewer than 280 work collectives. He was endorsed by the Russian Communist Party. He won the backing of Soyuz (Union), the influential conservative faction in the Soviet parliament.

But in action, Mr. Ryzhkov's campaign seems rote and spiritless. His vocabulary is traditional Soviet bureaucratese. His program generally resembles a watered-down version of Mr. Yeltsin's: He plays to fears of a market economy by saying he would move much more slowly and cautiously in giving up the old planned, centralized economy.

He, too, would free prices, but more gradually. He, too, would privatize much of the economy, but not all at once. He would accept foreign assistance, but not at the price of creating huge foreign debt.

This go-slow approach could be quite effective with the public, since many people are genuinely fearful about what a market economy may bring. When Mr. Ryzhkov describes, for instance, listening to weeping women in factories, hysterical over the four- and five-time increase in the price of children's clothing April 2, he seems on the verge of achieving populist appeal.

His nickname among the people, "The Weeping Bolshevik," is in part ridicule of a few times when he seemed close to tears in responding to criticism. But it is part a compliment in a country where steely, often bloodthirsty leaders have ruled. He really seems to care about protecting people from economic ruin.

The trouble is that as prime minister, he himself was the first top Soviet official to propose price reform, in a speech to the Soviet parliament 13 months ago. His proposal was rejected, but it set off panic buying that marked the beginning of truly universal food shortages.

Most important of all, there is no spark in Mr. Ryzhkov's campaign, no fire, no evidence of fervent desire to win the presidency. He insists that running was his own idea, but at every campaign stop he faces voters who are convinced that the Communist Party directed him to.

All this adds up to a bleak, if not hopeless, picture.

The Institute of Socio-Political Research of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, has no good news for him.

Its poll May 28 of 1,000 people selected to reflect the voter rolls all over Russia showed that 51 percent were for Mr. Yeltsin and 17 percent for Mr. Ryzhkov. None of the other four candidates got more than 5 percent, said Gennady V. Osipov, head of the institute.

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