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On The Eve of Final Round, Yeltsin Must Win Over His Electorate

Irkutsk/Moscow; Russia July 2 (NCA/) -- Moscow has always stood apart from the rest of Russia: it is enormous, fast-paced and these days, obsessed with commerce and politics. Moscow is a state within a state, where raw power commands attention from the ramparts of the Kremlin to the night clubs of the new rich .

On the eve of Russia's decisive presidential election, posters around Moscow show President Boris Yeltsin shaking hands with popular Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. They proclaim: "Muscovites have already made their choice." According to first round results on June 16, the posters would seem to be right. Muscovites have profited the most from Yeltsin's reforms and they gave him over 60 percent of their votes. Luzhkov himself was re-elected mayor with over 90 percent of the vote. The ubiquitous posters and banners urging Muscovites to vote again tomorrow would thus seem to be excessive.

It is in cities like Irkutsk, 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow, where Yeltsin's fate hangs in the balance. And here, there are no posters. The one banner in the center of this city of 650,000 celebrates July 3 as the "60th anniversary of the State Auto Inspection Board." Only the television churns out election propaganda, almost 24 hours a day. Yeltsin may have been laid low these past four days, but you would not know it from the news footage. Until Yeltsin resurfaced yesterday, the evening news showed extensive footage of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as well as file shots of Yeltsin meeting with his advisers. The news was interspersed with campaign commercials of starving peasants in the 1920s, telling Russians it was "not too late to prevent famine" by voting for Yeltsin. Then is was back to the news and a derisive short report on Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov's press conference. The reporter smirked and dismissed Zyuganov's comment as "incomprehensible."

Many people in Irkutsk are turned off by such heavy-handed tactics. As the presidential campaign comes down to the wire, the televised anti-Red message from Moscow has grown ever more strident. But on the local level, many of the region's former Communist Party bosses continue to run the government as well as much of the new commercial enterprises. As people here remark, even Yeltsin is a former Party boss, so why the Red scare tactics? And why the focus on the 1920s and 1930s, for which Zyuganov bears as little responsibility as Yeltsin, in most minds?

For people like Sasha and his wife Nadia, things have only worsened in the past five years under Yeltsin's reforms. Among the first Yeltsin supporters in Irkutsk in 1991, Sasha now says he is "at a crossroads" and undecided about whom to vote for - or whether to vote at all. He leafs through a photo album showing him and his family rallying for Yeltsin in the winter of 1991. Then he stops at a photograph of his two small daughters, rolling on the floor in a pile of 100 ruble bills. Sasha says, "That was our daughters' savings. At the time, that money could have bought a car, but we put it all in the bank, so it would earn them interest over the years. "Five years later, that money will buy Sasha's daughters a kilo of sausage.

It is the same with the privatization vouchers Sasha and Nadia invested in a local factory. The company changed owners and they never saw any dividends. Sasha now works as a driver to make ends meet. His wife works at a grocery store, where most of the food is imported and beyond her reach. Their daughters' school now demands parental fees for everything from books to new lab equipment. Before, Nadia recalls, everything was free.

Sasha and Nadia do not believe in the Communists' promises, but they have grown sour on Yeltsin. And to win tomorrow, Yeltsin will have to recapture their votes - the votes of people who formed his original electorate. Sasha is suspicious. "If Zyuganov is so bad," he asks, "why doesn't Yeltsin ever let us see him on television?" And he adds bitterly, "We've come to see they're all the same - all former Party hacks wrestling for power in Moscow. The choice isn't between bad and worse, it's between bad and bad."