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.

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