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In Russia, The Race For The Kremlin Is On

Prague, Feb. 16 (RFE/RL) - Some things never change in Russia. Take President Boris Yeltsin's speech to announce his candidacy for the June presidential elections for example.

Ordinary Russian TV viewers, who wanted to see the rather long-winded speech in full, were disappointed. Another decisive moment in Russian history passed the official media by.

For the burgeoning class of satellite dish owners things were different. They had the whole hour of Yeltsin live on CNN.

The debate as to why neither Russian TV or radio carried the whole speech, made in Yeltsin's home town of Yekaterinburg, produced the inevitable rash of conspiracy theories. It is rare when dealing with Russia that anyone jumps to less sinister explanations like technical failure.

Whatever the real reason, the fact of the matter is that both Yeltsin and his arch rival, communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov, have, as expected, now officially declared that they will contest the elections. Whoever wins will decide the immediate future of Russia at least for the next five years.

Newspaper columnists of late have focused on the real possibility that Russians may indeed opt for a communist head of state on June 16. But the dividing line between what Yeltsin stands for and what Zyuganov represents has become blurred.

Yeltsin says he is the only hope for the continuity of Russia's reforms. But he has bent so far to the left recently, ousting cabinet members like Anatoly Chubais, the architect of key reforms, in favour of Soviet-style officials, that many find it difficult to take him at his word.

What with his promise to pay up what is owed to pensioners, schoolteachers and miners Yeltsin looks all the more likely to spend his way to the election. This could be tricky especially with the International Monetary Fund still considering a $9 billion dollar loan to Russia.

What is more, even Yeltsin's one-time supporters now say he is but little more than a Bolshevik in disguise. They use the evidence of the brutal war in Chechnya to support their claim.

The chameleon-like Zyuganov, for his part, changes his colours according to his audience. In the manner of a consummate politician he will tell western investors they have nothing to fear. Then, without so much as a flinch, he tells his domestic audience that he will redress the wrongs of privatisation and do more to support the poor.

Among the other contestants lining up for the race is nationalist stunt-man Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The 49 year old leader of the misnamed Liberal Democrats may do well especially if, as expected, the elections go to a second round. He has his own brand of populism to sell often washed down with a free glass of vodka.

The democrats have not got beyond the bickering that cost them important votes in December's parliamentary elections. Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of the main reformist camp in the Duma, is seen as arrogant and highly ambitious.

Then there is the retired army general Alexander Lebed. His gruff voice and battle-scarred appearance seemed to appeal to many in the race for the lower house of parliament. But his followers failed to get in. The lack of any grass-roots organisation to support his party may also do him a disfavour during the presidential race. All in all it looks like being a pretty good fight for the Kremlin. That is undoubtedly what has motivated Yeltsin. Nor so long ago he had been practically written off as a spent political force.

But for a man who thrives on challenge, especially when the stakes are high, Yeltsin, despite his age and his poor health, will not take this one lying down. Past examples show that he is a sore loser. With or without him Russia may be in for another rough ride.