St Petersburg, April 26 (RFE/RL) - If there is any region in Russia where Grigory Yavlinsky should expect to win in his quest for the Russian presidency, it is St Petersburg. The local branch of Yavlinsky's Yabloko party here is by far its strongest in the country. In the past, the city's liberal voters have demonstrated their support for them at the ballot box.
In December's parliamentary elections, St Petersburg's electorate gave Yavlinsky a reason to smile, in what was otherwise a disappointing election, by giving his party one of its strongest showings in the country. Not only did Yabloko finish in first place in the party list portion of the vote with 16 percent, its candidates also won in six of St Petersburg's eight single-mandate electoral districts.
According to the latest data on the preferences of St Petersburg voters for the presidential elections in June, however, President Boris Yeltsin is leading the pack here with about 24% of the vote. This represents a surge in support for the president, who in January was in a statistical dead heat with Yavlinsky here.
Leonid Kessleman of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology asserts that his data show Yeltsin's total in St Petersburg to be as high as 30 percent and Yavlinsky's at 20 percent. According to Kessleman, Yeltsin's surge in St Petersburg is partially the result of his regaining the support that he earlier enjoyed here.
"History is repeating itself," Kessleman said. "Earlier, people supported Yeltsin because he was the personification of the life that liberal Petersburgers wanted for themselves. Over time he lost a great deal of his support due to corruption in his administration and the war in Chechnya. This led many people to vote for Yavlinsky in December." Kessleman believes that now people are afraid of the Communists, and have been led to believe that Yeltsin is the only person who can stop Zyuganov. Kessleman also cites the influence on national political tendencies on the city and of fear of a Communist victory.
"St Petersburg is an island of democracy, but it is vulnerable to influence from the national mass media," Kessleman said. "If you watch television or read the newspapers you hear over and over that only Yeltsin can defeat Zyuganov. Public opinion is being manipulated nationally and this is having an effect on the St Petersburg electorate," he told RFE/RL.
Maxim Reznik, a member of Yavlinsky's St Petersburg electoral staff agrees. "Yeltsin's people are applying pressure on the national mass media," according to Reznik. "Yavlinsky is very dangerous for Yeltsin, and they are putting out the message that he can not win. They are claiming that a vote for Yavlinsky is like a vote for Zyuganov," said Reznik. "This practice," he adds, "began when Yavlinsky was in second place behind Zyuganov nationally, and in first place in St Petersburg, and is having its effect on the electorate."
Regarding Yavlinsky's proposed "Third Force" alliance with renowned eye surgeon Svsyataslav Fyodorov and retired general Alexander Lebed, both Kessleman and Reznik believe it could change the dynamic of the election both in St Petersburg and nationally.
Kessleman asserts that the alliance would significantly raise Yavlinsky's rating, because it would change the perception that he cannot win.
Reznik goes farther, stating that, "If the coalition happens and if there is a fair election, and that part is far from certain, then Yavlinsky will be in the second round with Zyuganov and he will win."
Our St Petersburg correspondent reports that the allegations of media manipulation made by Kessleman and Reznik, while widely accepted, tell only part of the story.
Yavlinsky's 16 percent support in public opinion polls now is actually equal to that which Yabloko received in December. He has not picked up the endorsements of any other major parties.
Yeltsin, in contrast, is receiving the support of the St Petersburg regional party organizations of both Our Home Russia and Democratic Russia's Choice, who polled 14 percent and 13 percent respectively in December.
Should Yavlinsky's coalition with Fyodorov and Lebed become a reality, he should also pick up the votes of those St Petersburg residents who voted for their parties in December, and surge ahead of Yeltsin.