'New' ham-fisted Yeltsin is pure Soviet Some analysts fear he may cancel elections 'to save Russia'

January 30, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- He hasn't announced his candidacy for a second term yet, but President Boris N. Yeltsin is obviously running.

The way he's going about it though is quite literally a take-no-prisoners political assault that resembles more the ham-handed techniques of his authoritarian Soviet predecessors than the history-making courage of the Yeltsin who stood atop a tank against Communist hard-liners.

Firing nearly the last of the democratic reformers in his administration, promoting conservative hard-liners, and waging a disastrous show of force in the breakaway republic of Chechnya this month, Mr. Yeltsin is making his former democratic allies jittery.

So much so, says respected political analyst Lilia Shevtsova, that "a lot of my democratic and liberal friends are saying, 'We don't think [likely Communist presidential candidate Gennadi] Zyuganov is so bad. He's more predictable, systematic, stable. "

Ms. Shevtsova predicts the coming months will be prolonged "political agony," as Mr. Yeltsin tries desperately to resurrect himself -- from ill health, low popularity ratings, and a series of political failures -- in time to win a second term in the June presidential elections.

Mr. Yeltsin, who turns 65 Thursday, has a long career of political bungles followed by dramatic comebacks inspired by the populist gut in stincts he developed on his rise through the Communist Party ranks in this nation's industrial heartland.

But the turnaround he is trying to maneuver now, after months of rating below 10 percent in popularity polls, is daunting. He's trying to recover -- physically and politically -- from two heart attacks in the last year as well as the December Communist parliamentary victory, which was seen as a rejection of his

democratic reforms.

Most observers here are convinced that the Kremlin's overkill this month in the Chechen rebel hostage crisis was just part of a campaign prescription to project the president as strong and decisive.

Instead, the bombardment and destruction of the tiny village of Pervomayskaya in Dagestan backfired. It looked as if the Russian government wasn't trying to save hostages as much as it was trying to destroy rebels, and when it failed and the rebels escaped with many hostages, Mr. Yeltsin's team was humiliated.

Political instincts behind a strong response to the hostage crisis -- the latest conflict in the 13-month war with the breakaway republic -- were probably correct, says Viktor Klamkin, chief analyst at the Public Opinion Foundation. Polls showed that 45 percent of the public was in favor of a strong response vs. 35 percent against.

But the failure of the military operation sparked broad, scathing criticism of Mr. Yeltsin, who only last summer was saying about the Chechen war that "practically any issue can be settled by negotiation, relying on the law and good will."

The Chechen crisis, which basically pits a small but very motivated rebel army against a large, disorganized and very unmotivated Russian military, is expected to dog the Yeltsin administration right down to the June 16 election.

Since the Chechen war began a year ago, there has been widespread speculation of backstage management by Mr. Yeltsin's militaristic and conservative inner circle, controlled by his security chief, Maj. Gen. Alexander Korzhakov. Always accompanying this speculation is the concern that this inner circle might be encouraging the president to postpone, or even cancel presidential elections on the slightest pretext.

Given Mr. Yeltsin's proclivity to use his strong presidential powers to circumvent legislative checks and balances, the notion that he could try to hang onto the presidency undemocratically is offered by almost all analysts.

Dmitry Ostalski, editor of the respected daily newspaper Sevodnia, says he has no doubt that given Mr. Yeltsin's somewhat messianic feelings about his role in Russian history, the president could easily try to grab power and "still be 100 percent sure he was acting to save Russia even if undemocratically."

Mr. Yeltsin said last week he is probably going to run again for president, and has said he will announce his intentions in the second week of February.

The December parliamentary elections were considered a sort of primary for the presidential race. Riding on the discontent of those who have been impoverished by economic reforms, the Communist Party and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party placed first and second, ahead of various democratic reform parties and independent candidates.

Mr. Yeltsin is not a member of any party, but is identified with Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia Party, which came in third in the parliamentary race.

The Kremlin vowed after the elections that it would not turn back on democratic and market reforms. But the Yeltsin administration's first order of business in the new year has been to replace reformers with conservatives.

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