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Rumors of Postponement Foster Uncertainty in Russia

Prague, May 6 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin today said that the presidential election will take place as scheduled June 16.

Yeltsin was responding to suggestions made during recent days by his security chief and close aide Aleksandr Korzhakov that the contest be postponed owing to its potential to destabilize Russia.

On May 1, Korzhakov told Britain's "Observer" Sunday newspaper that he and "a lot of influential people are in favor of postponing the elections because we need stability." Korzhakov went on to say that "if we have the elections (now) there is no way of avoiding a fight." He also hinted that if the contest were to be postponed, the Communists might decide to cooperate in exchange for participation in the government. "Observer" published the interview in its edition yesterday.

Korzhakov repeated the suggestion in an interview yesterday with the Russian "Interfax" news agency. He was quoted as saying that the voters need more time to "think calmly and reach a mature conclusion" about their choice of president.

On each occasion, Korzhakov made it clear that he was speaking in a "private" capacity and not as a member of Yeltsin's staff.

Indeed, his suggestions have met a prompt rebuke from several Yeltsin's aides. Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Medvedev, and his campaign manager, Sergei Filatov, have both said that the election will go on as scheduled. Filatov told Russian media today that even raising the issue of postponement was "harmful" in that it might have suggested Korzhakov's own "uncertainty in (Yeltsin's) victory."

But the doubts persist. It should be noted that, while Yeltsin periodically asserts that the election will take place on time, rumors about calling off the contest continue to circulate both within and outside the government.

For example, ranking Russian diplomats have been reported to reflect informally to their Western colleagues that a possible return of Belarus to Russia's fold could prompt the postponement because of widening of the electorate.

Last month, 13 influential Russian businessmen and bankers issued an open letter, warning that the election will not solve any of the couuntry problems. Instead, they called on Yeltsin and his Communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov, to search for a "compromise" to stop Russia drifting into potentially violent confrontations.

One of the letter's initiators, Boris Berezovsky, told "Sevodnya" newspaper that "the question of our political system is not decided by voting." He went on to emphasize that "it is being decided either with the help of civil war or with the help of compromise between opposing politicians."

Berezovsky himself is said to be close to Korzhakov, while the remaining business leaders have maintained links to the government.

In the meantime, Yeltsin has been meeting with his electoral rivals to discuss "ethical issues of the campaign." Last week he met General Aleksandr Lebed (retired), and economist Grigory Yevlinsky. There are also plans for a meeting with Zyuganov himself.

But there are no signs that the Communist leader would accept any "compromises" or condone postponements. Yesterday, Zyuganov told the "Pravda" newspaper that the Yeltsin camp "is afraid of losing the election because it is not coping with the situation." He added that "people will not put up" with any attempt to manipulate the choice. Today, the Communist chairman of the Russian State Duma, Gennady Seleznyov, said that there was no reason to postpone the elections.

Zyuganov has been found by various opinion polls to be leading Yeltsin by a large margin, but other surveys have suggested that the gap between the two might be closing.

The contest is still a toss up, with the campaign affected by political uncertainty.

Rumors about the postponement only augment this uncertainty. If nothing more, these rumors have already served to undermine the confidence of the Russian electorate in the nascent democratic political process, and have darkened Russia's image among many Western observers and policy makers.

These rumors have hardly helped Yeltsin's electoral chances, although it may be that some of them originated with the intention of giving his support. Indeed, these rumors may have damaged the president while making his Communist rival look both honest and clean.

Finally, these rumors of postponement present a significant danger to Russia's political stability itself, fostering an atmosphere of creeping manipulations and conspiracies that only endangers the existence of Russia's first democratic experiment since 1917.