Boris the Bountiful bounces back

Phil Reeves on how billion rouble election promises have brought Yeltsin back almost from the dead to the brink of victory

Boris Yeltsin had a busy day yesterday. He gave voters in the Far East half-price air fares. He cut the tariffs on railways. He boosted support for single mothers and big families. He signed a power-sharing deal with Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia's bigger industrial regions. And all that was before lunch.

Six months ago you could have been forgiven for thinking that the grand old man of the Kremlin had been sucking on the bottle. But not these days. He is off the vodka, fit, sprightly and fighting the political campaign of a lifetime. He uses fair means and foul, and it seems to be working.

How quickly fortunes change. Last December, Mr Yeltsin's prospects were as bleak as the Moscow mid-winter. He was living in seclusion in a sanatorium, an isolated old man with heart problems, blindly trying to renew his bond with an electorate that held him in contempt. Body bag after body bag was coming back from Chechnya, a war he had embarked on in search of a quick victory to appease Russia's growing nationalist sentiment but which backfired horribly. Nothing he tried - from kicking out alleged pro-Westerners, like his Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, to the wild bombing of Pervomayskoye - seemed to dig him out of his hole.

Since then, he has been utterly transformed. His ratings - once a measly 5 per cent - have soared, pushing him slightly above his Communist-nationalist opponent, Gennady Zyuganov. Even Chechnya, his albatross, has become a lighter burden. He has a ceasefire, of sorts; negotiations have begun, albeit falteringly. No one can dispute he has proved himself to be a maestro of the campaign trail, the Houdini of Russian politics.

At this point, let there be a word of warning. None of this means he is assured of victory. Far from it. The mood of confidence sweeping the corridors of power in Moscow and Washington fails sufficiently to take into account the capacity for the Russian electorate to deliver a surprise - just as they did in 1993's parliamentary election, when the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky won more than 12 million votes. The resentment over free market reforms in Russia's provinces should not be under-estimated; they may yet take their revenge. Yet, even if Mr Yeltsin loses, his campaign will stand as a dazzling swansong.

Much of this transformation is due to a large team of high-flying political consultants, spin doctors who have their headquarters in the Presidential Hotel in Moscow - once the exclusive resort of top members of the Communist Party. They include several people whom he recently dumped from office in an effort to appease the nation's anti-Western sentiment. At the helm are his erstwhile economics guru, Anatoly Chubais, and Sergei Filatov, his liberal ex-chief of staff. His daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, is also hugely influential behind the scenes; even his bodyguard and confidant, General Alexander Korzhakov, concedes she is the only one who can really speak to "Papa" about sensitive matters.

The image honed by this electoral machine is as slick and tacky as those of any of his American counterparts. Mr Yeltsin flirts with the camera's lens with the ease of a Ronald Reagan. He has swung on a (fortified) swing with a child in Archangelsk, plunged into the depths of an Arctic coal mine and danced like a dervish at a rock concert in the Urals, watched by thousands of delighted young fans. Last week his family appeared on a one-hour television programme in a piece of down-home nonsense that owed more to American than European politics. His wife, Naina, was seen baking cabbage pie and chocolate cake as the children talked warmly about the patriarchal Boris.

His walkabouts are as choreographed as a synchronised swim. Take, for example, his trip to Volgograd on Victory Day. The most many of the crowd saw of him was a quiff of white hair bobbing about in a scrum of cameraman. In his wake came a small speaker, connected to a microphone on the presidential lapel, and lugged around by two of his security men. Out of it would crackle one question after another from members of the public - about student grants, or the treatment of veterans, or teachers' pay. Feigning surprise, Mr Yeltsin, who has a Dave Allen touch, would reply with a gruff joke and a large dollop of money.

This tactic must have threatened to turn the hair of his economic advisers as white as his own (and, for that matter, the IMF's, which has just lent him $10.2bn), for he has been throwing money around like a tooth fairy on Ecstacy. In recent weeks, he has handed out billions of roubles for libraries, factories, combine harvesters, social centres. There have been tax breaks, higher wages, bigger grants. Such is his largesse that yesterday he prevailed on the central bank to hand over 5 trillion roubles ($1bn) to help finance the spree - much to the disgust of the bank's board. Every day brings a fistful of new presidential decrees, often signed as he travels the length and breadth of the country. He even fired one off at the top of a mine shaft.

He has, of course, several other huge advantages. He has bamboozled governors and mayors - particularly those he appointed - into getting out the Yeltsin vote. Foot-draggers have been fired; the keen and ambitious have been festooned with honours. And the myth that Russian television is free has gone up in smoke.

The national channels have bombarded viewers with so many images of B Yeltsin, Action Hero, that once this week the president's advisors decided to keep him off the screen, for fear that the blanket coverage was backfiring. Some of this bias is the direct result of the Kremlin's bullying tactics (the president took the precaution of sacking the head of the state-run RTR in February, pour encourager les autres, but it is also self-induced. The liberal intelligentsia of the Russian media argue that such niceties as editorial balance are overshadowed by a bigger moral duty to defend their freedom of speech against the threat of Communist censorship. Their own censorship has ensured that the generally dull Gennady Zyuganov is scarcely seen on the screen.

Mr Yeltsin's revival is so impressive that political analysts are wondering whether it was the product of a deeper longer-term strategy. Nikolai Petrov, a respected analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes the Kremlin ensured the government-backed Our Home Is Russia party put up a poor performance in December's parliamentary elections, in order to allow the Communists to win a stack of seats. That way Mr Yeltsin could genuinely campaign against the "Red Menace".

That may be too conspiratorial, even for Russia. But the Kremlin is not beyond plotting, especially if it means shutting out political opponents whom they believe would seize their assets and dispatch them to jail, and who - it's now clear - bear little resemblance to the social-democratic Communists of Eastern Europe.

The president's team is playing a blinder. The next worry is whether they will try and put the contest beyond doubt by fiddling the count.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick