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Press Review: Electoral Race Tightens in Russia

Prague, May 21 (RFE/RL) -- Presidential politics in Russia leading up to elections June 16 draw Western press commentary. In a local race in St. Petersburg, incumbent Mayor Anatoly Sobchak encounters an unexpectedly strong anti-incumbent challenge. Commentators infer from this a harbinger for President Boris Yeltsin. In Moscow, Yeltsin tries to fashion a coalition with democratic challengers.

Richard Beeston writes today from Moscow in The London Times: "A young, charismatic and popular Russian politician has maneuvered himself into the role of kingmaker in the country's presidential elections next month. With President Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov, his Communist main rival, running neck-and-neck in the polls, Grigory Yavlinsky, the candidate for the liberal Yabloko party, is being courted for his small but loyal following -- which could tip the scales on (election) day.... For Mr. Yavlinsky, who is inexperienced in government, an alliance with Mr. Yeltsin might be distasteful but highly rewarding. If he clinched the job of prime minister, he would, in effect, become Russia's president-in-waiting."

The Suddeutsche Zeitung carries a news analysis today by Thomas Urban. Urban writes; " 'Should we support Boris Yeltsin or not?' This is the issue over which Russia's democrats have been quarrelling for weeks. Though the democratic parties are politically insignificant, their supporters could be the kingmakers in the forthcoming presidential elections. For according to the opinion surveys to date the incumbent, Boris Yeltsin, and his major challenger, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, will be neck-and-neck in the decisive second ballot in early July. Should democratic voters decide not to take part in this run-off ballot -- for example out of disappointment that they were forced to chose between the lesser of two evils -- they could be handing victory to Zyuganov."

The Suddeutsche Zeitung writer concludes: "Though Yeltsin's reelection would not guarantee Russia's continued democratic development, there would still be a chance of it. However, if Zyuganov were to win, one could give up all hope of such development. This is obvious not just because of the Communist leader's limited view of the world.... A return to power by the communists would isolate Russia in the medium term, and would bring back the division of Europe. The West would then have to pay a far greater price than it is currently paying with its generous loans to support Moscow."

In the British newspaper Financial Times today, John Thornhill says in a news analysis: "Mr. Anatoly Sobchak, the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg, will have to fight a second head-to-head election against his deputy after failing to secure an outright majority in (yesterday's balloting) for the city's top job. The election, seen as a dress rehearsal for next month's Russian presidential (election), confirms a strong anti-incumbent mood among voters and may worry President Boris Yeltsin's advisors.... Mr. Vladimir Yakovlev, the deputy mayor who broke with Mr. Sobchak to run as an independent, made a surprisingly strong showing."

"If (yesterday's) results from the St. Petersburg gubernatorial election are a harbinger of the June 16 Russian presidential vote, Boris N. Yeltsin may be in for a bruising," Carol J. Willliams writes in today's Los Angeles Times. Williams says: "Although the St. Petersburg race was among democrats, with the Communist candidate never in contention, Sobchak's opponents appear to have drawn votes from the incumbent with their accusations of corruption and mismanagement of reforms. Those same charges are being leveled at Yeltsin by Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, as well as by rival democrats who could siphon votes away from the current president."

New York Times writer Michael R. Gordon writes today in the newspaper: "In a vivid display of anxiety over President Boris Yeltsin's gains in the polls, the communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, implored party members (yesterday) to tone down their remarks about nationalizing private property. Zyuganov made his unusual appeal at a raucous party meeting, surrounded by signs of open dissent within the communist ranks and growing concern that the party is losing the initiative to Yeltsin.... With the June 16 presidential election fast approaching, the Communists are still struggling to hammer out their economic plan. The preparation of a detailed economic program has pitted hardnosed ideologues..., who favor large-scale state intervention in the economy, against more politically astute aides who have been trying to soften Zyuganov's image and appeal to a broader cross-section of voters. Zyuganov, for his part, has generally sought to avoid alienating hardliners as well as pragmatists. He has talked in vague terms about the virtues of a mixed economy, of privately owned and government-controlled enterprises, without providing specifics."

Sunday's New York Times carried an analysis of U.S. official thinking on the Russian elections. Elain Sciolino wrote: "In divining the Clinton administration's thinking about the presidential election in Russia next month, consider this: Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's first draft of a major analysis of Russia policy last January omitted any discussion of what to expect if the Communists won. Only after colleagues drew the omission to Talbott's attention did he insert a 'what if' section in the final version.... The omission underscores just how little is known in Washington about what will happen in the Russian election next month -- and, more important, how that uncertainty limits the administration's ability to plan for the outcome."

Writing in the U.S. newspaper Journal of Commerce, Michael S. Lilyveld said yesterday: "Western investors hoping to make sense of Russia's June 16 presidential elections might be advised to tune in again about six months from now.... The outlook is cloudy.... Despite commitments to cut tariffs and resolve a dispute over imports of U.S. poultry, officials already are talking about new protectionist tariffs, quotas and quality controls. Less than a month after approving financing, the IMF warned Moscow that it might halt a 340-million dollar loan tranche unless the government honored its agreements. It could take six months or more to find out if the backsliding represents campaign pandering or more permanent policy change."