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.