Yeltsin tests political winds in stage-managed tour

January 27, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

LIPETSK, Russia -- On a carefully stage-managed tour of two prospering factories here, President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday made his first public appearance since sending the army into Chechnya, had a few quick exchanges with ordinary people -- and when no one mentioned the war, raised the subject himself.

At the sausage department of a meatpacking plant, he asked a worker, Lydia Chekrizhova, what she thought about the battle in the breakaway republic.

"We're all worried," she said, "and hope that it will end very soon."

4 Mr. Yeltsin said later that he shared her hopes.

Rumored to have been ill or otherwise incapacitated after more than six weeks out of the public eye, Mr. Yeltsin yesterday appeared to be in good health. But he had stayed out of sight during one of the biggest crises of his presidency, and his visit could do little to affect the deep popular unease over the war and over the course of Russia's future.

As his limousine zipped along freshly plowed streets, elderly women who had been kept waiting hours for their bus grumbled about the war and their own poverty; mothers of soldiers shed tears over the lack of news from their sons; veterans shook their heads over the state of the army.

Factory directors met Mr. Yeltsin with the traditional offering of bread and salt, and girls gave him flowers. He visited one department of the spruced-up meat factory, then stopped by the tin mill of the mammoth Novolipetsk Iron and Steel works.

"This is just like a classic visit by the general-secretary of the Communist Party," said a disillusioned Dmitri Pitertsev, who works in a government office. "No one's allowed near him. He looks at a few show factories and then flies off."

Mr. Yeltsin said he came to Lipetsk, a city of 500,000 about 240 miles south of Moscow, because: "It's a strong area. They voted well. There are no slogans, no extremes, no attacks. People are ** in a good mood."

He stuck to the industrial outskirts of the city. There were neither protests nor crowds to greet him.

Lyudmila Kamarova, whose son is serving in Chechnya, said she wished she had had the courage to lie down in the road and block Mr. Yeltsin's motorcade with a banner protesting the war.

"But what can I do alone?" she said. "If I could meet Yeltsin I would get on my knees and plead with him to bring the boys back. But I know it wouldn't get through to him. He robbed the people. He made us poor. And now he robs us of our sons.

"We elected him because we thought he came from the heart of the Russian people. And now he has cheated us."

Oleg Ivlev, a 23-year-old army veteran who works as a guard at the steel mill, said Mr. Yeltsin seemed like a pleasant man when he walked by. "You know, he's done things so that people who are smart enough will live well -- those who aren't, won't," Mr. Ivlev said, adding that he wasn't sure which category he fell into.

"But now Chechnya," he said. "Well, I'm against young, untrained soldiers being killed for God knows what."

Maria Smolyeninova, 70, was one of those waiting doggedly across from the meat plant for her bus into town.

"We want to live better, to ease the strain of our hearts, to keep peace. Who else could help us except the head of state?" she asked, pointing upward as if to God. "Maybe he is coming to see how we live here."

Her friends scoffed, and said he would never be allowed to see how real people must live.

"If he came to my house I would show him what I have inside my refrigerator," said Maria Chekulayeva, 53. "Nothing!"

And throughout the city, people expressed bitterness or dismay. Many of Mr. Yeltsin's former supporters said they believed he had been misled by those around him; there was talk of unknowable conspiracies as dark as the rich black soil. "Yeltsin's team keeps in the shadows," said Irinia Martinova, head of the local Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. "We can only guess what's going on there. We had an image of him, but maybe we were wrong."

"What would I say to him? We don't believe in anything anymore," said Alexandra Kostikova, who waited in vain for the president in the store at the steel mill.

Strikingly, those few who actually met the president were much more taken with him.

"He looked tired," said Yevgeny Musatov, a worker at the steel mill who approached Mr. Yeltsin. "But what I liked about him was that he first asked about our health, and only then about production. I wanted to tell him to continue with reforms, but it was so quick I didn't have time."

Both factories are in private hands and doing well.

"You have a good plant because you have good management," said Valentina Mukhina, who works in the laboratory at the meat factory. "It all depends on the leadership.

"And the country is the same way," she said, arching her eyebrows. "It all depends on the leadership."

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