Confident Yeltsin promises to remove 'pain of recovery'

Russian polls: President launches manifesto as ratings show him moving ahead of rivals

After a week in which even his critics have been left gasping at his political bamboozling skills, Boris Yeltsin yesterday sought to nail down his gains by unveiling an election manifesto in which he promised to lead Russia to a "normal way of life".

"I feel your pain, the pain of the country" he assured his countrymen in a 127-page document in which he combines further free-market reforms with several themes from the book of his Communist-led opponents: "It is the pain of a recovering organism".

The release of the blueprint, just over two weeks before the election, coincides with more evidence that, even though he is far from assured of victory, the President has made astonishing progress in his quest to stay in the Kremlin.

Six months ago, he was isolated, ill, deeply unpopular, and out of touch with the electorate - a fact reflected by the Communist victory in last December's parliamentary elections. Now he is revitalised - off the bottle, focused, and a flamboyant alternative to the younger challenger, Gennady Zyuganov.

The President's plan, entitled Russia: Individual, Family, Society, State: an Action Programme for 1996-2000 is a wish-list in which he promises to continue financial reforms, but with more emphasis on social issues.

Like the Communist-nationalist bloc, whose economic plan came out earlier this week, he promises growth, lower taxes, price controls on natural monopolies, measures to defend domestic markets and moves towards economic integration with members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. He wants to raise and index-link pensions.

But he also wants to ratify the Start-2 arms agreement; introduce obligatory health insurance, affordable private health care and private pensions; develop Russia's stock market and use foreign loans to free up money for investment at home.

Unlike his rivals, he rejects reducing the sweeping powers of his office. "Russia needs strong presidential power, because the only alternative is one-party rule, camouflaged as soviets," says Mr Yeltsin.

It is because of these powers that the reincarnated Mr Yeltsin is able to use almost every trick in the book to endear himself to an electorate which was heartily sick of falling living standards, closed factories, corruption, crime, Nato expansion plans, late pay and a near-useless welfare system.

Touring Russia at high speed, he has doled out promises of money like a latter-day Santa Claus, from new combine harvesters in the Caucasus to holidays for miners' children in the Arctic. The television stations have been brow-beaten into line, and are lapping up one choreographed photo-stunt after another - Yeltsin down a coal mine; Yeltsin on a swing with a child; Yeltsin dancing at a rock concert.

But the tour de force of his campaign was rooted in the Chechen war, the running sore of his presidency. In persuading the Chechen leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, to sign a ceasefire in Moscow, and then flitting down to Chechnya in person, Mr Yeltsin will have convinced many Russians he is genuinely bent on ending the conflict.

Last night, talks with the Chechens had run into trouble, being postponed amid allegations that the Russians were still firing at separatist forces. Even so, Mr Yeltsin will be credited for trying.

Russian opinion polls have a reputation for inaccuracy, but most agree he is making headway and is neck-and-neck. One, by the Public Opinion Foundation, gave Yeltsin a 12-point lead over Mr Zyuganov and his Communist- nationalist bloc.

Such is the optimism in the Yeltsin camp that the President is even talking about winning enough votes (50 per cent plus) to clinch the election in the first round. However, this is over-optimistic; the battle is not yet won.

In Moscow, a Yeltsin stronghold, there is a tendency to over-estimate his strength, and understate the hostility of the provinces. In the Urals city of Perm yesterday, Mr Yeltsin was heckled by on-lookers.

And it would only take another health scare to undermine his successes. The presidential doctors will be keeping a sharp eye on their charge - and his drinking glass.

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