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Press Review: Russia's Presidential Elections

Prague, May 13 (RFE/RL) - Western press commentary focuses today on Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his campaign to gain re-election in next month's election.

Alessandra Stanley writes today in a news analysis (FF-16) in the New York Times:... "in his uphill battle to win re-election, Yeltsin, 65, is using all the privileges of incumbency -- including his government's virtual monopoly on electronic media - - to bend election rules in his favor."

Stanley continues:... "but all the money, artistry and technology in the world may not be able to put Yeltsin's reputation together again -- and there are other obstacles to victory besides the public's deep disenchantment with his presidency. Decision-making at the top of the campaign is balkanized into multiple, and often rival, power centers."

Stanley quotes Igor B. Malashenko, the chief executive of the privately owned NTV network and Yeltsin's top news media adviser, as saying "there is a problem of emotional contact. Russians no longer see him as one of them. He has become too much the czar."

The analysis continues: "there is consensus at the top about the basic strategy to defeat the Communist candidate, Gennadi A. Zyuganov. Yeltsin has begun traveling extensively and greeting voters on the street to reassure Russians that he is not too old and too sickly to govern. He has tried to combat voters' rage about unpaid salaries and small pensions by pledging to raise both."

John Thornhill, writing today in the Financial Times (FF-704), comments on former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who announced his electoral program yesterday. Thornhill says: "Mr. Gorbachev urged journalists to provide fair coverage of every candidate's programme, permitting democracy to flourish."

Gorbachev told a news conference: "I think the situation with media information is much worse than in the years of perestroika. In fact, we are watching a one-man show. We are watching the presidential campaign of a single candidate." Thornhill writes: "Mr. Gorbachev's comments echo complaints from other candidates that their messages are being muzzled by the media."

... "Gorbachev promised to pursue a third way between capitalism and reactionary communism.... his programme included promises to end the war in Chechnya, reinforce property rights, and provide greater state support for culture, science and education."

A news analysis today (FF-14) in the Los Angeles Times says that Yeltsin's "gains from the Volga trip (Yeltsin ended a 10-day campaign trip down the Volga River on Saturday) may be too little to vault him ahead of Zyuganov. But Yeltsin, who is spending more time with ordinary Russians than at any other period of his presidency, has scheduled a dozen more outings before the June 16 vote."

The analysis concludes: "In his effort to win over voters, however, Yeltsin faces two daunting obstacles -- the war in Chechnya and the chronic, weeks-long delay of government wages and pensions to millions of Russians. Last week he was besieged, often heckled, about these problems. His mantra -- 'Life will get better, believe me!' -- is wearing thin."

David Hoffman, writing today in the International Herald Tribune (F-522), comments on Yeltsin's attempt to gain candidate Grigori Yavlinsky's support to form a coalition to defeat Zyuganov. Yavlinsky said yesterday that he will not support Yeltsin. "... Yeltsin continued to seek an alliance with Yavlinksy, saying that splits among advocates of democracy and reform could only help return the Communist party to power."

"Earlier last week, Mr. Yavlinsky had held out the possibility that he would support Mr. Yeltsin in the June 16 elections if the president moved quickly to end the war in Chechnya, to replace his domestic policy advisers and to shift direction of economic reform."

Michael Specter, writing Saturday in the New York Times, said: "Yeltsin is not fond of Yavlinsky. Yavlinsky has spent much of the last year arguing that Yeltsin is a man whose time is long gone. But the president needs him now, and the president is still the most powerful man in Russia."

Specter quotes Anatoly Chubais, the former head of Russia's privatization program, as saying " 'we have got to get Yavlinsky to think more about Russia than he does about himself.' Chubais said Yeltsin could not realistically offer Yavlinsky the one post he appears to want, that of prime minister."

Specter concludes: "People who support Yavlinsky are not often fond of Yeltsin. They see Yavlinsky as an alternative who is not a route to the past. If he were to unite with Yeltsin, many of those who support Yavlinsky would have to wonder what happened to their bold new leader.

"It is an unpleasant choice for Yeltsin, who would have to accommodate the needs of a man he does not like. And it is an unpleasant choice for Yavlinsky, who would have to yield to a leader he does not respect."

Writing in Newsday on Friday, Susan Sachs said: "Increasingly, campaign rhetoric on all sides alludes to the potential for violence, civil strife, and even civil war. Zyuganov himself constantly warns that the Kremlin is plotting to falsify election results and thus provoke bloodshed. Other Communist leaders make dark predictions of shadowy forces -- on Yeltsin's side, not theirs -- planning pre-election disturbances in order to declare a state of emergency. . . . Yeltsin stoked the speculation by admitting that his confidant (his aide and bodyguard General Alexander Korzhakov, who said that Russia isn't ready for democratic elections) is not alone in worrying that the elections could ignite civil strife."

A news analysis yesterday (Sunday) in the Observer (FF-807) notes that a popular theory is that "Yeltsin gave Korzhakov the go-ahead to speak out. According to this, Yeltsin is so worried at lagging behind the Communist Party leader Zyuganov in the polls that he wanted to float the idea of calling off the elections in case it appealed to the masses. If it did, a deal might be struck with the Communists whereby the elections would be called off, he would remain president with fewer powers and Zyuganov could become vice president or prime minister."

The analysis also comments on the recent activity of the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service (FSB) in uncovering nine British diplomats for alleged spying and arresting a Siberian scientist charged with smuggling a homemade substance which could be used to make nuclear bombs. The story says that General Mikhail Barsukov, the head of the FSB, is "one of Korzhakov's closest cronies." "... the FSB was uncommonly busy last week, proving to Russians what peril their country is in, perhaps to set the scene for declaring a state of emergency, the only constitutional way to have the election called off."