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Press Review: Pondering Yeltsin's Political Power

  • Don Hill

Prague, Feb. 15 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin is in his hometown of Ekaterinburg, known as Sverdlovsk in Soviet times, where he is expected to announce today that he will run for reelection in June. Western commentators examine the state of Russian politics.

In an analysis in today's Washington Post, David Hoffman writes: "President Boris Yeltsin... is already portraying himself as the candidate of Russia's move toward democracy and free markets. But in the view of the early architects of those reforms, Yeltsin has all but ceased to be Russia's main agent of change.... The reality as seen by reform advocates here... is that Russia's transformation has been uneven, torturous and more often stimulated from below than led from above. The country is poised between authoritarianism and democracy, between central planning and free markets. For many reformers, the worrisome prospect is that the transition will stall somewhere in this twilight zone, and the Communists are waiting in the wings to reverse it."

"The time has arrived for a fundamental Western reassessment of President Boris Yeltsin, because he has abandoned everything that the West appreciated in him," Swedish economist and an adviser to the Russian government Anders Aslund writes in today's International Herald Tribune. Aslund, who is also a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says: "Instead of focusing on personalities, the West should do what it can to reinforce Russia's democratic and market economic institutions before the elections.... The West should stand by its values and call genocide in Chechnya by its true name and evoke the human rights provisions of the Helsinki accords."

Alan Philps writes today in Great Britain's The Daily Telegraph: "President Yeltsin arrived last night in his home city of Ekaterinburg.... The mood on the eve of his arrival was at best lukewarm, with many people dismissing him as a shadow of the energetic party boss remembered in... hungry days for securing scarce supplies of food and whipping lazy or corrupt officials into line.... For those who knew Mr. Yeltsin before he entered the distorting mirrors of Moscow politics 10 years ago, talk of Mr. Yeltsin's democratic convictions is nonsense."

In today's Financial Times of London, Chrystia Freeland writes: "Officially launching his reelection campaign in Ekaterinburg... would be the logical step in (Yeltsin's) attempt to transform himself from a reform capitalist into an ordinary guy concerned primarily with getting things done and improving the lot of the common man. The president's most serious challenger, Mr. Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, is expected to launch his campaign for the Kremlin at a Communist conference in Moscow today. Mr. Zyuganov, who ironically never climbed as high as Mr. Yeltsin in the party pecking order of the old regime, is widely perceived as a lackluster personality, lacking Mr. Yeltsin's charisma, political guile, and control over the machinery of state. But Mr. Zyuganov is not haunted by the ghosts of the unloved nouveaux riches and he is happy to blame Mr. Yeltsin for the painful transition to a new economic system."

Today's International Herald Tribune carries a commentary by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. Friedman writes: "A couple of jokes being told by Russian delegates at last week's Davos (Switzerland) economic forum bear repeating. One was - What is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist in Russia today? Answer: A pessimist believes that things in Russia can't possibly get any worse. An optimist believes that they can. Count me an optimist about Russia. And that is because of the second joke - Russians know that their next president is going to be a communist. They just don't know whether his name will be Boris Yeltsin, Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, or Grigory Yavlinsky."

David Hearst comments today in the British Guardian: "Gennady Zyuganov today will be nominated as the presidential candidate of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.... It will be more anointment than vote. As matters stand now, Zyuganov is the man most likely to become Russia's next president when the country votes in June.... But the path ahead remains slippery. Yeltsin... has many tricks up his sleeve.... Zyuganov knows the battle is only beginning."

In a separate commentary in The Guardian today, Hearst contends: "Ekaterinburg is not a communist city, but nor is it willing to toe Moscow's line. In elections last December, the city voted for a party started by its governor, Eduard Rossell, a man who began as a copy of Mr. Yeltsin but developed into a powerful regional leader threatening to set up a separatist Urals republic. Reform has done no favors to the city's huge military-industrial factories."

Great Britain's The Independent carries a commentary today by Phil Reeves. Writing from Ekaterinburg, Reeves says: "Mr. Yeltsin... is expected today to announce plans to run..., in spite of his recent heart attacks, his advancing years, and low popularity ratings. But the city where he grew up and studied can no longer be depended on to deliver the 90 percent vote that helped propel him into the president's suite. Like the rest of Russia outside Moscow, it was long ago embittered by broken promises and post-Soviet economic decline.... None of this bodes well for the president and his team."

In the New York Times yesterday, Michael R. Gordon discussed a troublesome free-press issue arising from the heated political environment in Moscow. He wrote: "In an election-year skirmish between President Boris Yeltsin and the press, the government has barred Russia's most prominent independent television network from the Kremlin, the network's editors said on Tuesday.... Yeltsin's press spokesman, Sergei Medvedev, denied on Tuesday that he had ordered the Kremlin off limits to the network and charged that the station was seeking publicity to boost its ratings. Soon after Medvedev spoke, the network told its viewers that the government was making it difficult for the station to cover Yeltsin's upcoming trip to Ekaterinburg.... With a presidential election coming up in June and Yeltsin's poll ratings dismally low, television has become increasingly vital for influencing public opinion."