New attempt to win votes by shedding old threats

Yeltsin pledge: Conscription to end and cut in crimes carrying the death penalty
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The bullet in the skull and the khaki uniform - the twin threats that for decades were used to help enslave the population of the former Soviet Union - receded dramatically yesterday, thanks to Boris Yeltsin's passionate desire to serve a second term in the Kremlin.

A month away from the election, the president signed a decree announcing the abolition of conscription to the vast, unpopular, and ill-equipped Russian army, ending a practice that dates back to the Tsars and, he hopes, will secure votes.

And he signed another, recommending a cut in the number of crimes for which execution is the punishment.

Mr Yeltsin's decree on conscription said the army will only recruit volunteers on contract from 2000 onwards - a move that is certain to be applauded by many Russians, and which the president hopes will translate into votes, helping him fight off a strong challenge from the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov.

He also declared that, from now on, no more conscripts will be sent to "conflict zones" - in other words, Chechnya - without their "own consent on a contract basis", an attempt to end the deep unhappiness over the thousands young Russians who have been dispatched to the Caucasus against their will, only to return in bodybags.

Universal conscription was introduced in 1874 as part of a series of military reforms introduced under Tsar Alexander II following the Crimean war.

After the rise of Communism and the creation of the Soviet Union, it became one instrument by which the party administered control over the masses. It also allowed the Soviets to secure supremacy over Eastern Europe and reinforce their Cold War superpower status.

In deciding to scrap it - a move which will probably only go-ahead if Mr Yeltsin is re-elected - Russia is conforming to a European trend towards professional armies, despite the fact that some experts believe they are less likely to contain high-quality recruits. Contract soldiers offer a narrower range of talents than conscripts who, theoretically, come with a broad range of backgrounds and skills.

However, in Russia, the system has been teetering on collapse since the end of the Cold War. Conscripts in the tough guerrilla war conditions of Chechnya and Afghanistan often proved to be useless, forcing the military to deploy its special forces. In some parts of Moscow, more than 60 per cent of young men have refused to obey call-up orders, a trend that worsened after the Russian parliament reinstated the term of service - lowered to 18 months by President Gorbachev - back to two years.

Although the move makes military sense, allowing the army to reduce its numbers from some 1.5 million, including 400,000 conscripts, to about 1 million, it clearly has as much to do with politics. Mr Yeltsin is running neck-and-neck in most polls with Mr Zyuganov, but he remains unpopular across much of rural Russia and is by no means certain of victory.

Yesterday he appeared to have scored a publicity coup; the end of conscription led the state-run ORT evening television news bulletin. It is unlikely, though, that he will have pleased the hardliners among his generals. Whether reducing the number of crimes which incur capital punishment will win him any votes is also doubtful. Violent crime in Russia is an epidemic, and there is little evidence of popular support for scrapping the death penalty. Moreover, in March, Mr Yeltsin said Russia was "absolutely unprepared'" to consider reduce the penalty for murder to life imprisonment.

As Russia digests these fundamental changes, Mr Yeltsin has other problems to worry about. He knows the presence on the electoral ballot of three other well-known reform-leaning candidates - Grigory Yavlinksy, Svyataslav Fyodorov, and General Alexander Lebed - threatens to steal votes.

This week, cautiously, he said he would be willing to consider establishing a "government of national trust" - suggesting that he might try and form an anti-Communist alliance. Speculation gathered pace last night after he held a meeting with Mr Yavlinsky. Any deal would almost certainly require sackings from his government, possibly the defence minister Pavel Grachev and the prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.