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Russian Reformers Reluctant To Support Yeltsin

Prague, Jan.24 (RFE/RL) - While Russian President Boris Yeltsin appears inclined to seek reelection in next June's presidential poll, some of his former reformist allies show increasing disenchantment with his policies and reluctance to back him following hard-line shifts of the past few weeks.

Yeltsin told a conference of foreign investors in the Kremlin this week that he would "probably agree to run in the presidential election." Yeltsin said he would refrain from announcing the final decision until the middle of next month.

The statement came as no surprise to observers of Russian politics. They have generally interpreted this month's intensified Russian attacks against Chechen separatists and hard-line cabinet reshuffles as signals that Yeltsin wants to enhance his re-election prospects by taking seemingly popular stands.

But Western analysts say the military operation against Chechen separatists may not become a major issue in the June poll. They do not expect Yeltsin, whose approval ratings have stayed in single digits during the past year, to repeat the performance of 1991, when he won with 60 percent of the vote. According to Russian law, a candidate must gain more than 50 percent of the first round vote to win. Otherwise the top two candidates must face each other in a runoff.

As for now, Yeltsin's political shifts seem to undermine any hopes that he could emerge as the candidate of Russian reformist voters.

Yesterday, Russia's leading human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov resigned from all positions he held in Yeltsin's administration, including the chairmanship of the presidential human rights commission. Although Kovalyov had been effectively prevented some time ago from participating in the work of the human rights commission as a result of his year-long criticism of the Kremlin campaign in Chechnya, he formally remained its chairman. He said he was stepping down because of Yeltsin's "preference for the use of force to solve political questions."

Former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, once one of Yeltsin's closest political allies, on Monday urged Yeltsin not to run, saying that his candidacy" would be the best gift one could make to the Communists." He also said that "gambling on Yeltsin after what has happened (in the last weeks) would be (political) suicide."

Although Gaidar's party, the "Democratic Choice of Russia," did poorly in December's parliamentary elections, he remains one of Russia's most respected politicians.

Several articles published recently in the Russian press quote Gaidar as saying his party, in preparation for the June presidential election, would "use the influence and trust it enjoys to make possible a cooperative agreement between 'Yabloko' and (the centrist bloc) 'Our Home is Russia' " of prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Gaidar has argued that democratic and moderate groups should agree on a common candidate to "avoid the possibility of Russian voters being faced with the option of choosing" either Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov or ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in a second round of voting.

Reformer parties did poorly in last month's parliamentary elections and the new legislature is dominated by Communists and their allies. The only pre-reform bloc represented in the State Duma is "Yabloko," led by economist Grigori Yavlinsky, who is an outspoken critic of Yeltsin and is expected to run against him in June.

Viktor Sheinis, a respected "Yabloko" member in the State Duma, yesterday told RFE/RL that Gaidar's proposal was "simply a wonderful dream" and "cannot find support in either camp." Sheinis said that Chernomyrdin, who has denied on several occasions any intention of running, "would stand in as a presidential candidate in case Yeltsin decided not to seek re-election." Sheinis also said that "Yabloko" is likely to support Yavlinsky alone in June.

But in the volatile world of Russian politics, much can happen in the months still left before the elections. Despite apparent shifts toward hard-line policies, Yeltsin attempts to continue to portray himself as a guarantee of Russian reforms. A more convincing candidate, with enough clout to unite any of Russia's split reform forces, has yet to appear on the political scene.