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Press Review: Russian Politics Looking Inward

Prague, April 11 (RFE/RL) - In the approach to the June presidential elections in Russia, the xenophobic influence of Communist Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky is affecting the election rhetoric and political positions of incumbent Boris Yeltsin. The Western press examines this and other political phenomena in today's Russia.

Russia's nationalistic turn is anything but an isolated development, Mira Kamdar, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, comments today in the Los Angeles Times. She writes: "There is a growing possibility that people whose political systems give them a vote will use that vote to opt out of democracy if they think that will give them protection." She says that significant nationalist voices are being heard in France (Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front); in Austria (Joerg Haider and the Freedom Party); the United States (Patrick Buchanin and elements of the Republican Party); and India (the Bharatiya Janata Party).

"In Russia," she writes, "Zyuganov, who is every bit as ultranationalist as... Zhirinovsky, is seriously challenging... Yeltsin's reelection bid.... The advent of free-market capitalism in an unprepared Russia resulted not in prosperity and social harmony but in misery and chaos.... No wonder Russian candidates are wooing voters with the same protectionist and xenophobia rhetoric that worked for Buchanan: Russia for the Russians; no more free market; let's return to the safe, protected good old days. "

Lee Hockstader writes from Moscow today in The Washington Post: "It usually happens in the Russian hinterlands, in a factory auditorium, say, or a rec hall crammed with the Communist faithful. That is where Gennady Zyuganov, presidential candidate and leader of the Communist Party, starts talking tough.... The current government is in the hands of 'liars' and 'haters of Russia.' ... As his front-running candidacy gears up nine weeks before Russia's June 16 presidential election, Zyuganov is marrying the resentful, xenophobic strains of nationalism with crowd-pleasing themes of Soviet nostalgia, historical revisionism and old-fashioned socialism."

The British Economist magazine says in its current issue: "With little more than two months to go before the first round of Russia's presidential election, Boris Yeltsin has started to claw back the early lead opened up by his Communist rival.... Zyuganov. Although plenty of Russians still blame Yeltsin for economic hardship, rampant crime and Russia's shrunken world role, the recent news is looking better. Inflation is more or less under control, the ruble has steadied, the slump in production has bottomed out, the crime rate has leveled off and wealth is trickling down, albeit too slowly, from the often corruptly rich at the top.... The average Russian cares little about Russia's loss of its wider empire. The Communists' call for a 'voluntary' rebuilding of the Soviet Union has resonated feebly.... Yet, for all that, Yeltsin knows that only one piece of news could transform his electoral chances at a stroke - the prospect of an end to the bloody war in Chechnya."

In the British newspaper Financial Times, Chrystia Freeland writes today: "In one of his increasingly frequent television appearances..., Yeltsin recently asked reporters to pass on a message...: 'Tell Zyuganov he still doesn't need an armored personnel carrier to come to work at the parliament.' Yeltsin was joking, but his comment was a reminder that democracy is still an alien system in Russia, a country where civil war and revolution are venerable national institutions. The most telling sign of democracy's fragile roots is the extent to which, just two months ahead of the June 16 presidential ballot, many influential observers continue to wonder whether elections will take place at all."

In a separate article today, Freeland contends that Yeltsin's misjudgment on Chechnya remains a major obstacle to his political hopes: "When (he) launched the Chechen war in December 1994, he and his entourage envisioned it as a sort of Russian version of Britain's triumpal defense of the Falkland Islands.... More than a year later, the Chechen conflict is looking more and more like Mr. Yeltsin's Vietnam.... Although most Russians have little sympathy for the Chechen separatists..., the war serves as a nightly (TV) reminder of the incompetence and brutality of Mr. Yeltsin's administration.... If Chechnya is unlikely to yield Mr. Yeltsin the pre-election gift of a peace settlement, it could produce a politically disastrous upsurge of fighting on the eve of the presidential poll."

John Thornhill writes in the Financial Times today that, just as Zyuganov's rhetoric is forcing Yetsin's positions to the right, irreversible changes in Russian society might force moderate positions on a possible Zyuganov administration. Thornhill says: "Some Russian politicians fear a communist victory in June's presidential election would inevitably lead to financial collapse and bloodshed as an economically ignorant and politically vengeful administration destroyed the foundations of a property-owning democracy.... Less alarmist observers predict Russia's new-born democracy and market economy would restrain any revanchist impulses and force (Zyuganov) to adopt moderate policies in office, much as France's President Francois Mitterrand was compelled to abandon socialism and chant a monetarist mantra in the early 1980s."

One smouldering issue in the Russian elections is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's plan to expand eastward. University of Massachusetts foreign policy scholar Sean Kay writes today in The Wall Street Journal Europe on "How To Enlarge NATO without Crossing the Russians." He says: "With the presidential election in Russia only two months away, NATO has an understandable desire to downplay its plans for enlargement.... NATO members should agree that, for now, NATO will not expand its military infrastructure to the borders of the former Soviet Union. However, the leading members should state publicly that if Russia violates the agreed limits of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty, takes aggressive or threatening actions in its near abroad, particularly toward the Baltics, or (presides over) democratic institutions collapse in Moscow, NATO will expand as its defense needs require. Such linkage can be a powerful tool for limiting the damage Russia's nationalists or communists may do."