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Tatarstan Voters Are Likely to Support Yeltsin

Kazan/Moscow, May 29 (RFE/RL) - In Tatarstan's capital Kazan, the main street, the one leading to the presidential palace in the white-walled Kremlin, is still called Lenin street.

Many Russian cities have still Lenin streets. Some are openly nostalgic about the Soviet past. But Kazan is different. The city seems intent to ignore vestiges of the Soviet past. It appears to be striving for economic change. And it is open to international contacts.

"Nobody cares about street names anymore," says a Kazan University student. And he adds that "what is important is that in the shops on Lenin street, once empty and boring, now sell almost everything, from video rentals, to computers and smart clothes."

Posh shopping-malls are not yet a feature in Kazan, as they are in Moscow or St. Petersburg. But one could buy here things of good quality. The choice is increasingly varied, and the prices are much lower than those in exceedingly expensive Moscow.

Kazan, a city with a population of over one million is visitor-friendly. Directional signs are in three languages: Tatar, Russian and English. Restaurants, bistros, cafes and pizzerias are frequent and, the local students assure, they are "affordable."

"Kazan has improved beyond belief in the last few years," says 23-year-old Marat, a language student at Kazan university. "And when you want to see something new, and have the money, you can take a direct flight to Turkey, without even having to go to Moscow."

Marat is one of the students in the new university department of Middle-Eastern languages who hope to use their language skills to find a job in the growing sector of international joint-ventures.

Only weeks before the presidential ballot, Kazan stays almost aloof of electoral fever. Or so it seems. One can hardly see electoral advertising in Kazan's streets. There are no posters featuring candidates, no signs of political rallies.

Raphael Khakimov, a political adviser to Tatar president Mintimer Shaimiyev says that "political advertising is shown mainly on TV." And he adds, "usually, everything is very quiet here. Besides, probably none of the candidates, with the exception of Mikhail Gorbachev, is likely to show up in Kazan."

When Marat is asked if he and his 22-year-old university colleague Alla have already decided who they would like to see as next Russian president, they answer without hesitation.

"We have never even considered voting for the communists," they say. "Those guys gave us nothing at all. Actually, it would be nice to vote for Gorbachev, because it is with him that changes started. But we will vote for President (Boris) Yeltsin, because only he can stop the communists."

Gorbachev's past role is rarely mentioned, let alone recognized, in the current electoral campaign. But in Kazan, people occasionally say that "in a normal presidential race, one without a direct confrontation between the communists and Yeltsin," they might have voted for the last Soviet leader.

Elsewhere, Gorbachev, so respected by many in the West for his contributions toward ending the Cold war, is usually disliked by most Russians, who look at him with contempt.

Twenty-six-year-old trader Igor Andreyev, traveling to Moscow by train to buy rice and fruit juices that are to be later sold to retailers in Kazan, says "I liked and still like Gorbachev. But it is unrealistic to vote for him. So I will vote for Yeltsin." He adds "I like my job, my salary changes every month, if I work more, I earn more. I want to buy my own house. With (communist candidate Gennady) Zyuganov I think I won't be able to live like this."

Tatarstan's popular President Shaimiyev has publicly endorsed Yeltsin's bid for re-election. Under his presidency, the Tatar republic on the Volga river, with population of 3.6 million that is 47 percent Tatar and 42 percent Russian, has acquired a large measure of autonomy from Moscow.

Aleksander Tarkaev, chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce, says that "people here, especially in the countryside, have faith in Shaimiyev, they listen to his views. And Shaimiyev has made it very clear that he does not support the communist candidate."

Tarkaev also says that the Communist Party may "find some support in factories belonging to the defense sector." In that sector, Tarkaev says, "the prospects for the future are rather vague, bankruptcies are possible and, while workers are not yet officially on the dole, they are not paid either."

Shaimiyev was overwhelmingly re-elected for a second term in office last March. He was unopposed. The only other candidate, a communist, had dropped out some weeks before the balloting started.