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Analysis From Washington - May Day in Moscow

  • Paul Goble

Washington, May 2 (RFE/RL) - May Day celebrations in Moscow this year underscored both how different Russia's two leading presidential candidates are and also how much they have in common.

After avoiding the May Day celebrations for several years because of their association with the old Communist regime, Russia's President Boris Yeltsin turned this year's festivities into a campaign event. Speaking to thousands of trade unionists, Yeltsin sounded themes which both link him to the past and set him apart.

On the one hand, Yeltsin invoked some old Soviet-era slogans about May 1st as the "holiday of spring and labor." And he used one taken directly from Gorbachev's time: "Long live the spring of changes Russia has embarked on after long years of lethargy and stagnation."

On the other, the Russian President eschewed the old Soviet formality and plunged into the crowds, danced with some of those assembled, and lit a candle in memory of Russian dead in World War II.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, Yeltsin's chief rival in the elections, exploited the holiday in a more traditional way. To emphasize his links with the Soviet past, he spoke near a statue of Karl Marx to a crowd larger and older than the one Yeltsin addressed.

Many in Zyuganov's audience carried pictures of Vladimir Lenin and some even portraits of Joseph Stalin. And they marched under banners - "For Honest Labor Against Parasites" and "The working people are one and united" - that could have appeared 20 years ago and more.

But like Yeltsin, Zyuganov also used the occasion as an election rally and predicted that he and his party would triumph in the upcoming elections.

What was immediately striking about the behaviour of the two was that Yeltsin felt compelled to bow to this traditional Soviet-era symbol even as he sought to give it new content and that Zyuganov felt compelled to give new content to an event that was obviously for him a comfortable reminder of the past.

What was more significant was that both men drew on so many of the same themes: deep respect for the sacrifices of the past, faith in the greatness of the Russian nation and its unique path, and promises of new stability and improved living standards in the future.

Equally striking was the extent to which they chose to define themselves not so much in terms of opposition to the Soviet inheritance but rather within the context of that inheritance.

Thus, Yeltsin apparently felt compelled to cast his appeal in language reminiscent of the Gorbachev years - a pledge to overcome "stagnation" - while Zyuganov used language from an earlier Soviet period - a statement that "Communists speak out against war, for peace, honest labour, the honor and dignity of the state."

Obviously, some of this rhetoric reflects both the day and the campaign, but it also says something about what both men believe: However much their programs for the future may differ, both understand that they can build these futures only by taking into account the extent to which they and their people are products of the past.

That does not make the choice between the two a trivial matter - Yeltsin and Zyuganov are far apart on many questions - but it does suggest that the choice may not be so apocalyptic as either of the two men or many observers have assumed.