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Press Review: Russian Politics Ahead of Presidential Election

Prague, May 15 (RFE/RL) -- Next month's presidential elections in Russia are the focus of western press commentary today. Newspapers examine the field of candidates as the race between the two frontrunners, President Boris Yeltsin and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, heats up.

David Hoffman, writing in a news analysis in the Washington Post, takes a look at Zyuganov's record, calling him "an unrelenting critic of reform." He says: "By his own words, Mr. Zyuganov is less a traditional Communist and more a Russian nationalist who admires the way Stalin built a formidable world power. His views suggest he would not only turn back Russia's domestic reforms, but would also pose a new challenge to Russia's neighbors, and the West."

Hoffman notes: "Mr. Zyuganov has displayed deep suspicion of Western culture, values and intentions. He has said Russia is in danger of becoming an American 'vassal state' and predicted that the West, and capitalism, will eventually exhaust themselves, allowing Russia to rise again to greatness."

Hoffman argues that the Communist Party's plans are more "far-reaching" than Zyuganov would like to admit to the West: "He has called today's Russia a 'bleeding stump' of a country and pledged to restore Russia 'voluntariliy' to the boundaries of the Soviet Union." And Hoffman sums up: "Ultimately, as Russians lost faith in reform, Mr. Zyuganov was waiting in the right place at the right time to give a voice to their humiliation."

In a news analysis in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, David Satter tries to explain, in his words, "the failure of Russian reformers." He says Zyuganov's popularity poses a "painful" question: "How was it possible in five years for the democratic process in Russia to discredit itself so thoroughly that millions of people are now ready to welcome a new dictatorship?"

Satter dismisses a common theory, that Russia's economic reform has led to widespread impoverishment, and therefore disenchantment, of the electorate. He points out that Russians voted overwhelmingly for Yeltsin's policies in a 1993 referendum, when economic conditions were much worse than they are now.

Satter contends: "It is not because of material hardship imposed by the reform process...but rather because of its underlying moral confusion." He writes: "The leading reformers...have made little effort to establish rule of law. There has been little attempt to assure a fair distribution of the country's property, to create a balance of power between the executive and legislative branch, or to provide police protection for ordinary Russians." Satter concludes: "It is important for both the Russian reformers and for the West to understand that the drive to create a market economy, however necessary it may be in the long run, is not sufficient to give the reform process moral legitimacy."

The British daily, The Independent, carries a news analysis today by Phil Reeves which examines the collapse of what he calls the "democratic bloc." Reeves comments: "With only a month to go before the first round of the presidential elections, efforts by three of the nation's better known candidates to join forces and offer an alternative to Boris Yeltsin, and the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, have collapsed in disarray."

Reeves notes that reformer Grigory Yavlinsky, retired General Alexander Lebed and eye surgeon Svyatoslav Fyodorov "had planned to unite under a banner of a group called the 'Third Force'." Reeves continues: "Their aim was to attract the large chunk of the Russian electorate who are disaffected by the economic malaise and corruption of the Yeltsin regime, but do not want to risk a return to Soviet-style Communism." He says that Yeltsin's attempt to win over the three candidates appears to have failed: "Several days ago Mr. Yeltsin tried to jumpstart a deal by publicly announcing that he was uniting with Mr. Yavlinsky...only to be embarassingly contradicted." An article by John Thornhill in today's Financial Times reflects on the official start of the campaign as candidates took to Russia's airwaves yesterday. Thornhill argues that political ad campaigns in Russia have a long way to go: "In general political advertising remains crude in Russia, with many voters expressing incomprehension at the often bizarre campaign presentations which preceded parliamentary elections in December. The Communist Party has used television clips of rippling wheat fields and space rocket launches with much success. But Russia's economic reformers have performed less well with their fare of hectoring lectures filmed in dimly lit studios."

In today's New York Times, Michael Specter looks at the problems with public opinion polls in Russia. He writes: "public opinion polls - which have never come close to predicting Russian voting patterns - are now among the country's principal obsessions." Specter says: "The polls have become so popular and influential, in fact, that they threaten seriously to distort the voting behavior they are supposed to predict."

Specter continues: "This week one major poll reported that the Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, had essentially maintained a 2-1 lead over President Boris Yeltsin. The same day another equally successful firm reported that Yeltsin had, for the first time, moved into first place."

Specter notes: "Even polling professionals admit that the general level of fear, distrust and confusion among voters in Russia today makes it almost impossible to take an accurate snapshot of the electorate...Yet even more than in experienced democracies, voters here seem to be hanging on the polls for guidance about what to do." Specter concludes: "Emotion and history are the central reasons why it has become so difficult to assess the views of the Russian voter. People are angry - that is clear. But Russian voters have often supported the ruler, whether they like him or not."

A news analysis by Didier Francois in today's French daily Liberation examines the widely differing findings of public opinion polls in Russia. Francois writes that despite Yeltsin's efforts to court the electorate over the past two weeks, he appears to have had little success. He says most public opinion surveys still put the Russian president in second place, just behind Zyuganov. But Francois cites one recent poll by the Sociology of Parliamentarism Institute that said Zyuganov was still far ahead of Yeltsin. He says the results have caused what he calls "a vague panic" in the President's circle and in Western capitals, because it was conducted by the same insitute that was alone in predicting the electoral success of ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in 1993.

Lee Hockstader, writing in today's Washington Post, also notes that opinion polls vary widely. But he says: "One point of agreement for nearly all the polls and analysts is that the war (in Chechnya) concerns the voters more than any other issue, except the economic upheaval that has whittled away people's incomes." Hockstader writes that Yeltsin is planning "to do what some of his aides evidently regard as life-threatening and politically dicey in the run-up to June's presidential elections: visit Chechnya where war still rages night and day." He notes: "The determination of the Russian leader to go to Chechnya, where he says he will convene peace talks and thank Russian troops, reflects the Kremlin's apparent fear that the war is hurting Mr. Yeltsin's re-election chances."