Yeltsin, embattled and ill, to make bid for second term Russian president cites need to continue reforms, oppose Communist threat

February 16, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Bucking low ratings, poor health and a strong wave of sentiment against his reforms, President Boris N. Yeltsin announced yesterday his bid for a second term.

"In order to ensure the continuation of the course of reforms, it is necessary for me to stand for president at elections," Mr. Yeltsin told an audience in his Urals hometown of Yekaterinburg.

"We have to do everything possible so that we, the Russians, and our country do not perish under the red wheel of the past," he said, referring to the Communist revival that has swept Russia.

Mr. Yeltsin, 65, whose health has been a major issue since he suffered two heart attacks last year, spoke hoarsely as he read his speech to a polite audience that showed little enthusiasm.

Addressing his biggest problems -- the war in Chechnya and the financial beating many Russians have taken from his market reforms -- Mr. Yeltsin admitted that he'd made mistakes in his five-year tenure. He made a number of promises to correct them.

He said he would find extra cash in the budget that would guarantee that all back wages for public employees and pensions would be repaid in March.

He said the 14-month war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya would end before Russia's June elections. Earlier in the day, he hinted that this would not be done painlessly, suggesting that the leaders of the move to secede from Russia "should be shot."

Mr. Yeltsin also warned against a Communist victory, threatening that privatization might be turned back -- effectively snatching away the land and homes people have built on them.

Even as he spoke, his Communist nemesis Gennady A. Zyuganov accepted the party's jubilant nomination in Moscow for the presidential race.

Though there are likely to be several contenders in the June 16 election, "the struggle of these two men will be the core of this campaign," said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Gorbachev Foundation.

Mr. Yeltsin is seen as the personification of political and economic reform -- hugely popular at first, but now suffering widespread criticism, including criticism from the strongest reform advocates. Mr. Zyuganov, on the other hand, is riding a wave of nostalgia among pensioners and the struggling workers whose economic security has evaporated with reform.

Mr. Ryabov said Mr. Yeltsin's announcement of his bid is historic just because "he's ready to participate in the democratic procedure of elections."

Mr. Yeltsin is Russia's first democratically elected leader, and the orderly bestowal of power -- either to another person, or to the incumbent -- "is really a very important step forward," Mr. Ryabov said.

Candidates must submit 1 million signatures to qualify for the ballot. And because no candidate is expected to win the the lTC required 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot, a runoff between the top two vote-getters is likely. Because the Communists won the most votes in December parliamentary elections, their leader, Mr. Zyuganov, is likely to be in the runoff.

But the real political question is who the second candidate in the runoff will be.

Mr. Yeltsin would have to beat a number of reform candidates from his own end of the political spectrum as well as Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the popular ultranationalist.

Mr. Yeltsin declared his candidacy against the advice of the country's strongest reform advocates, including his former acting prime minister, Yegor T. Gaidar.

Mr. Gaidar argued that while Mr. Yeltsin might make it to the runoff, he might not be strong enough in the runoff to lure the democratic voters alienated by the Chechen war and the increasingly hard-line position he seems to have taken since the Communist parliamentary victory. A fresher democrat might be able to pull the liberal camp together to beat Mr. Zyuganov in a way Mr. Yeltsin can't, said Mr. Gaidar.

In his speech, Mr. Yeltsin said he'd spent sleepless nights asking himself whether he'd taken the right direction and had decided he had. While all problems have not been solved, he said, Russia could thank him for the fact that "our children and grandchildren don't know nepotism, don't know what ration cards are, nor what long lines are for food, and everyone can buy what they want."

And he tried to outline what a return to Communist leaders would mean. He said privatization would be turned back -- suggesting that people's land and the houses they've built on that land would be snatched away.

"He basically was creating the effect of himself as a captain who can't abandon his ship when the first leaks appear," Mr. Ryabov said. "He was saying, 'You've gone halfway with me. It wouldn't be decent of me to let you go the second half alone.' "

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