Struggling Yeltsin comes home A hero no longer: Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin returned home yesterday a far cry from the hero who slew the Communist dragon in 1991. A poll shows only 17 percent of local voters support his re-election.

Sun Journal

February 15, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- When Boris N. Yeltsin left this city in the Urals for the Communist Party big time in Moscow, everyone here was delighted, so much did they admire him. They wanted to see him bludgeon the Soviet establishment the way he bludgeoned local bureaucrats into being honest and fair.

"I had a feeling of freedom born in me," says Valeri Naumov, a 26-year-old businessman whose fists clench as he remembers the emotions from the end of the 1980s. "I wanted to write to someone, or just do something."

But the Boris Yeltsin who returned here yesterday -- and who is to announce today whether he will run for a second presidential term -- will find little of the hometown enthusiasm he enjoyed a decade ago. In the region that should be a bedrock of support, people such as Mr. Naumov offer a distinctly tepid shrug.

"It's much more than disappointment that I feel," Mr. Naumov says. "He's old. He's become a Muscovite. I don't see him as a president -- a real president wouldn't have made the bad decisions he made."

Here as elsewhere in Russia, complaints focus on the 14-month-long war in Chechnya and the failure to end the crippling inflation, one of the byproducts of economic reform. Opinion polls show Mr. Yeltsin's support plummeting to less than 10 percent, lower than the figures for the likely Communist and nationalistic candidates for the June 16 vote.

The heart of the Urals industrial region, and lying on the edge of Siberia, Yekaterinburg is where one sees the contrast between the old and new Russias, and where one sees the changes in the man who steered the course between the two.

Yekaterinburg is a Cold War fortress transformed into a capitalist-wanna-be. Francis Gary Powers, the American U-2 spy-plane pilot, was shot down here, a military-industrial area where entry and exit of even Soviet citizens was severely restricted.

Today there are foreign consulates and 600 foreign joint business ventures looking to turn idle plants and workers into cash cows.

Whole neighborhoods of decaying pre-revolutionary mansions and log cabins stand as testament to a rich past of industrial barons and fortune seekers. Its end at the hands of the Bolsheviks is marked by a simple cross, at the site where the Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II and his family.

Mr. Yeltsin, as a Communist Party apparatchik, feared the house where the executions occurred might generate anti-Communist nostalgia, and in the early 1980s ordered the building demolished.

This is also where the limits of Russia's democratic revolution are being tested. In August, the region of which Yekaterinburg is the capital became the first to elect its own governor. In January, the new governor reached an agreement with Mr. Yeltsin that shifts power to Yekaterinburg and out of Moscow.

Mr. Yeltsin enjoys greater popularity here than anywhere else, though a poll this month by the Release firm found it severely diminished: 17 percent of voters said they would vote for Mr. Yeltsin in June, compared with the 85 percent who voted for him in 1991.

Many of his college classmates and government colleagues live here and occasionally see him socially. They tell stories of the young Boris Nikolaevich, dark-haired, rail-thin and exhibiting the blunt manners of his upbringing in a village 200 miles away. They remember him organizing early-morning student workouts and then as a party official who traveled incognito on city trolleys, the better to get a feel for the common man.

Thousands of people live in the concrete apartment complexes that Mr. Yeltsin built as a young contractor and travel in the subway that Mr. Yeltsin created as a young politician. The skyline of factory smokestacks is dominated by the 22-story government "White House" that Mr. Yeltsin built as party secretary for the region.

And the positive parts of President Yeltsin's reforms -- the new cars, furs and once-forbidden foreigners who leave a trail of dollars -- shine brighter in a provincial city that is cheaper and easier to live in than Moscow.

"Life is a lot tougher now but there's a lot more freedom -- we're free to earn money the way we want to," says 19-year-old Natasha Dobravolskaya, who sells her family's mass produced art in the city's central square.

She used to see Mr. Yeltsin as the personification of democratic and economic changes caused by the fall of communism and the Soviet Union. They at first were exciting and hopeful times -- especially in central Russia, where residents might never have obtained more than a drab factory job and a communal apartment.

But the private capital necessary to save jobs hasn't arrived fast enough to keep the economy healthy. People have lost jobs, work for low, infrequently-paid salaries, or strike out on their own with varying degrees of success. And Mr. Yeltsin gets the blame for reforms that have gone astray.

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