Same office, different country Once Soviet president, Gorbachev says heis running in Russia

March 02, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Ready, rested and one day shy of his 65th birthday, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the first and last president of the Soviet Union, said yesterday he will ask the Russian people for another chance to lead the country.

Asked if he will run in the June presidential elections even if the country's "democrats" don't agree to make him their consensus candidate, Mr. Gorbachev said, "I will, I will."

It was one of the few times at a standing-room-only news conference that the former leader gave a clear, unequivocal answer.

But a succession of coy, rambling and sometimes incomplete replies made it plain that he is running for president -- as the champion of a unified democratic movement, or alone.

"If I go to the elections, it won't be as a 'wedding general,' " Mr. Gorbachev said, evoking a classic Russian tale of an army officer paid to attend a marriage in full uniform to serve as window dressing.

His "address to all democratic forces," calling on them to agree on a plan of action for the June 16 election, was the latest bid by a presidential contender to capture the elusive middle ground in Russia's turbulent politics.

The two front-runners, incumbent President Boris N. Yeltsin and Communist challenger Gennady A. Zyuganov, offer an alternative between a "worsened today" and an "improved yesterday," Mr. Gorbachev said.

"Our holy duty is to give Russia the possibility of a real choice," he said.

Mr. Gorbachev may believe he should be that choice, but his problem is that to reformers he remains an untrustworthy relic of the Communist past, while to Communists he is a turncoat who betrayed his party.

A poll last autumn by the Public Opinion Foundation found that Mr. Gorbachev, who held a succession of Communist Party and government jobs but never faced voters, would get only 0.9 percent of the presidential vote.

For the average Russian, the man who resigned as Soviet president in December 1991 has vanished so far from the radar screen that Mr. Gorbachev no longer makes the list of the 100 leading politicians periodically published by a Moscow newspaper.

He shrugged off such polls.

Looking ruddy and hearty despite a winter cold, he countered that other surveys had found that most voters decide on election day. "Let's not jump to conclusions," he said.

An "action committee" claims to have gathered 700,000 of the 1 million signatures needed to put Mr. Gorbachev on the ballot.

Tamara Zamyatina, an Itar-Tass news agency commentator, speculated that Mr. Gorbachev intends not so much to win in June as to thwart Mr. Yeltsin's re-election.

"Gorbachev cannot forgive an offense from somebody who participated in his forced departure" from power, she wrote.

The two men have been fierce rivals since the mid-1980s, when Mr. Gorbachev first promoted Mr. Yeltsin's rise and then booted him from the Soviet Communist Party's ruling circles.

But in his address yesterday, Mr. Gorbachev also spared no vitriol for Mr. Zyuganov, contending that if the Communist leader comes to power, he will stop economic reforms, abolish democratic rights and put Russia on the road to "national socialism."

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