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Yeltsin Appears To Widen His Lead Over Rivals

  • Stephanie Baker

Prague, May 21 (RFE/RL) -- With less than a month to go before Russia's presidential election, several major opinion polls show President Boris Yeltsin widening his lead over his chief rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

The polls indicate a dramatic reversal of Yeltsin's standing since February, when surveys showed him in third or fourth place. The latest poll by the Moscow Times and CNN, released on Friday, gives Yeltsin an 8 percent lead over Zyuganov (28 to 19 percent). Other polls released last week gave Yeltsin a smaller but still significant edge over Zyuganov.

But many analysts warn that opinion polls in Russia are notoriously unreliable in predicting electoral preferences, largely because of a high level of fear and mistrust among voters. They say people, accustomed to fearing authorities, are often reluctant to tell strangers they intend to vote against the president, or acknowledge their support for candidates such as ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Moreover, the surveys consistently reveal that more than one third of the Russian electorate remains undecided.

Most polls give Zyuganov a static 25 to 30 percent of the vote, which suggests that he has been unable to broaden his support beyond a core Communist Party constituency.

However, one survey released last week by the Institute for Parliamentarism gave Zyuganov a two to one lead over Yeltsin. The Institute claims to be the only polling agency to have predicted the success of Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party in parliamentary elections in 1993.

Its director, Nugzar Betaneli, has said the institute's polls are more accurate than most because they are based on a sample of 6,000 registered voters, which is about four times more than other polls use. Betaneli says the larger sample allows him to weed out people who provide "false" answers.

Russian media this week tended to ignore the Insitute's dramatic prediction of a Zyuganov victory, instead focusing on the recent polls indicating that Yeltsin's support is growing. This, however, has led some observers to speculate that the polls might have somehow been fixed in Yeltsin's favor to influence the electorate.

Aleksandr Olson, director of Russia's Public Opinion Foundation, has denied that politicians are able to "order" desirable ratings, but he acknowledged that polls are not always accurate barometers of voter preferences. In a recent interview with Moskovskie Novosti, Olson said the media discussion of Yeltsin's apparent surge in support is, in his words, "premature and even detrimental." He says polls often influence politicians more than voters because they tend to make candidates complacent about winning.

So far, Yeltsin has not let his poll numbers go to his head. Two days ago he announced during a campaign swing in Siberia that he might reshuffle his government team in order to bring in new faces from other anti-communist camps. And Yeltsin is continuing his efforts to persuade rival presidential candidates, such as reformist Grigory Yavlinksy, to drop out of the race and back him to prevent the return of the communists.

Zyuganov, for his part, appears concerned about Yeltsin's apparent success in playing on the fears of a communist victory. At a meeting yesterday with Communist party allies, Zyuganov urged supporters to avoid using what he called "scary words" and called on them to present a more moderate image. The message, in his words, should be: "No one is about to confiscate anything, everything will be done strictly according to law."

Redardless of the accuracy of the poll numbers, most analysts agree that Yeltsin is doing much better than he was a few months ago. He is skillfully using the power of incumbency to define the election as a referendum on the communist past rather than his record as president. But it is still unclear what he would do as Russia's second democratically-elected head of state.