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Yeltsin Seeks To Rekindle Support For Reforms In Parliament Speech

Prague, Feb 23 (NCA/Charles Recknagel) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin sought to rekindle popular Russian support for reforms today in a State-of-the-Federation speech which comes just four months before the June Presidential election.

In what many analysts are terming a campaign speech, Yeltsin told a joint session of parliament that his government has overseen four years of reforms which have succeeded in giving ordinary russians full political freedom.

But at the same time he said that market reforms have brought grave social iniquities along with economic progress, and that many poorer russians have come to the point "where tiredness and disatisfaction are overwhelming".

Still, Yeltsin told the lawmakers, the country must push ahead with reforms or risk losing "freedom and democracy," which he called "the way to provide a decent life and become a prosperous country."

Analysts say that the speech revealed a Yeltsin who is running hard for president and is well aware of the ground he must catch up to be re-elected. Recent polls show Yeltsin with a single digit popularity rating in the face of a resurgent Communist Party which has emerged as his strongest rival by challenging many of his market reforms.

"Yelstin was trying today to win back the people who have been losers in the market economy by reminding them they have something to gain from reforms," says Robert Orttung, a political analysts at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague.

In his speech, the Russian president acknowledged many of the Communists' own criticisms of his reforms in an apparent effort to defuse them and salvage support for the reform process itself.

Yeltsin said that the main thing his government had failed to do was reliably protect people's social and economic security, even as it secured their political freedoms.

He vowed to focus directly on social problems in the future. He promised to end irregularities in payments of wages and pensions, and protect savers against dishonest banking practices. He also said the state must take on the task of assuring homes to families with low incomes, and speed up agricultural reform.

Yeltsin said that many of the problems with reform to date came from "underestimating the depth of the crisis we inherited" from the communist system. But in what appeared to be a last minute decision, Yeltsin avoided attacking the Communists head-on today.

Correspondents say that a written state-of-the-federation message given to the legislators yesterday included a strongly stated case against Communism as a reason to continue reforms. Why Yeltsin did not make the same case in his remarks today was not immediately clear, but it could have been a nod to the sensibilities of his audience. Since last year's address, Parliamentary elections have swept Communist delegates into the lower house (Duma) as the largest voting block.

Yeltsin devoted surprisingly little time to speaking about either the war in Chechnya, a theme which dominated his state of the federation speech last year.

He said the crisis in Chechnya "is still a serious issue," but gave few specifics of how it would be resolved. He said that the supporters of separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev have resorted to "simple banditism," but that Moscow was open to negotiations and compromise with "responsible political representatives."

The scant attention paid to Chechnya surprised analysts who recall Yeltsin's previous legislative address, which opened with an invitation to lawmakers to observe a moment of silence for the victims of the fighting.

Analyst Orttung observes that "Yeltsin may simply by playing for time on the Chechen war until he has a solution." Most analysts believe Yeltsin cannot win the June elections without first ending the crisis in the breakaway republic.