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Playing Election Games in Russia

Prague, April 1 (RFE/RL) - In the western democracies, electoral campaigns are rarely won on substance. But they are always won on perception. In that respect, Russia's presidential campaign is shaping up to be a very "Western" contest.

Sixteen months ago, President Boris Yeltsin started the war in Chechnya. Three years earlier, he dismantled the USSR. In the minds of most potential Russian voters, both moves have brought little more than bloodshed and impoverishment. Yeltsin's Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov does not miss an opportunity to repeat it.

But with less than three months until voters go to the polls, Yeltsin now appears to have found a way to counter his main opponent. While the Communists travel around the country castigating government policies, Russia's president has shrewdly begun to implement his rivals' very platform - seizing the opportunity to portray himself as a peacemaker and a statesman.

With his announcement of a halt to major military operations in the breakaway republic of Chechnya and the promise of a new "union" with neighboring Belarus, Yeltsin hopes to appease Russia's angry voters while stealing a march on the Communists.

The strategy appears to be: if you can't beat your opponent, expropriate his best ideas and present them as your own. The tactic could well prove effective. For one, everyone wants peace in Chechnya and Yeltsin's proposal appears sufficiently generous that it seems progressive and reasonable. Among other things, it promises a partial Russian troop withdrawal from Chechnya, a unilateral stop to major Russian offensives, dialogue with separatists and eventual broad autonomy for the republic. But the plan is sufficently vague that it cannot be portrayed as a concession by Moscow.

Yeltsin's proposal does not envisage a troop withdrawal from battle zones, it offers no direct negotiations with separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev and makes no offer of independence for Chechnya. Yeltsin has left the one controversial point in the plan, an amnesty proposal for separatist fighters, in the hands of the Communist-dominated Russian parliament.

After Yeltsin unveiled his proposal on national television, Communist leader Zyuganov was at a loss for words, saying only that Yeltsin was "repeating old initiatives of the Communists."

On the issue of possible unification with other former Soviet republics, Yeltsin has been eager to portray himself as the champion of voluntary reintegration. The man who was instrumental in breaking up the Soviet Union said in recent days that "no one who has a heart" could cheer the USSR's dissolution.

While he was quick to come out against a recent Communist-sponsored parliament vote invalidating the 1991 breakup, Yeltsin was equally quick to hail Russia's closer ties with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan after a Friday summit in Moscow. On Tuesday, Yeltsin and Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will meet again to sign an even closer "union" treaty, which on paper at least, will bring Belarus securely back into Moscow's fold.

Here again, the treaty provisions, insofar as they are known, are sufficently vague to be subject to broad interpretation. Each side is also free to withdraw from the treaty after six months' notice, a convenient post-election elastic clause. ]

Whether the Chechnya plan and the Belarus treaty remain more than pieces of paper will only be seen in time. But the key for now is that the Communists will be left behind in the perception game, unless they can react quickly.

But here too, Yeltsin has the advantage of incumbency and access to the media is proving to be a challenge for Gennady Zyuganov. Yeltsin still faces an uphill battle in his bid for re-election, but he has shown himself to be in full form once again.