Yeltsin's re-election gamble Russia's decision: Candidates scramble as campaign begins for June presidential vote

February 19, 1996

THE ODDS SEEM suicidal. If presidential elections were to be held today, Boris N. Yeltsin could count on seven percent of the vote, according to opinion polls. Can he recoup before the June 16 vote?

In announcing that he is a candidate for re-election, Mr. Yeltsin clearly thinks so. Even as January data show Russia's economy shrank, unemployment rose and average wages fell, the country's first post-communist president believes he can overcome all the criticism and grumbling. "My duty as the politician who launched reforms is to consolidate all healthy forces and prevent shocks that could lead to a civil war," he declared on the stump in Yekaterinburg, his one-time Urals hometown.

There is no question that incumbency is an advantage in Russia, just as it is in this country. But its importance should not be overestimated. Mr. Yeltsin's base is increasingly splintered, while Gennady Zyuganov, the neo-communist candidate, can count on the cohesion and enthusiasm of his ranks. Never mind that many of the latter's supporters are motivated by pure revenge against those in power and money; very few Russians today feel very enthusiastic about Mr. Yeltsin's zig-zagging policies.

Russians have a great gift for overdoing things. The brief period of free-market experiments under Mr. Yeltsin is an example of how even incomplete reforms have produced lots of excesses -- from skyrocketing crime to flaunting of the wealth by the newly rich -- that angered ordinary people. This triggered a backlash against capitalism and the invasion of Western hucksterism and mass culture.

Mr. Zyuganov's neocommunist-nationalist alliance promises to roll back some of the reforms. While several other candidates are in the race -- ranging from liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky to retired Gen. Alexander Lebed -- the uncharismatic 51-year-old Mr. Zyuganov has to be regarded as Mr. Yeltsin's chief challenger because he has the backing of the most cohesive political organization in the land.

The West has a major stake in the outcome because of Russia's nuclear might. Whether the West can play any role is another matter. This election will be decided on internal issues that range from the disastrous military excursion into Chechnya to the growing economic inequality within Russia.

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