Admitting he had "made mistakes", Boris Yeltsin defied his critics yesterday and declared that he would run for a second term in the Kremlin, saying he was determined not to allow Russia to "perish under the red wheels of the past".
In a robust speech before local officials in his home city of Ekaterinburg, President Yeltsin said it would be "irresponsible" and an "irreversible mistake" for him not to run, although he acknowledged there had been persistent calls for him to take "honourable retirement".
Mr Yeltsin's speech, which was warmly though not rapturously received, amounted to an outline of his strategy to try to rekindle his popularity in a country where many blame him for the economic suffering caused by free-market reforms, and have turned to the Communists in growing numbers.
In an announcement that that will alarm those who advocate tight monetary control, he made clear he is planning to splash out heavily in an effort to win June's election, despite his unpopularity and ill health.
He promised to pay $2.8bn (pounds 1.8bn) in back-wages and pensions to the millions of Russians who have gone unpaid, some of them for months - one of the most persistent complaints from voters.
He also committed himself to ending the practice of withholding wages "entirely and for ever" by next month - a hostage to fortune, which could prove highly damaging if he fails to deliver - and to trying to end the Chechnya war, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives.
The logic he used to justify this spending spree is that, after liberalising and stabilising the economy, output and investment need stimulating with social spending. This is unlikely to please the International Monetary Fund, which is considering a $9bn loan to Russia, the second largest in history, although it seems certain to go ahead, not least because it has the support of President Bill Clinton.
Faced with an enormously difficult task, Mr Yeltsin, 65, is representing himself as a kinder, gentler president, concerned with social issues - a stance close to the agenda of the Communists under Gennady Zyuganov, the front-runner. "I am for reforms, but not at any price," said Mr Yeltsin, "I am for a correction, of course, but not for going backwards" - a jibe at the Communists, whom he accused of seeking "social revenge".
The decision to run by Mr Yeltsin, who looked in relatively good shape despite a hoarse voice (which he blamed on a day spent talking to people), will be a blow to the liberal wing of the pro-reform camp. There have long been predictions that the democratic vote will be split between Mr Yeltsin, who has lost the support of most liberals, and their likely candidates, including the liberal economist Grigori Yavlinsky.
The President accused the "new generation of democrats" of lacking necessary experience, although he praised some of them as "bright and sincere". "I am not convinced they could bear the weight of the recent past," he said. Summing up his position, he said: "To have survived so much, to have learnt so much, how could we bear to stand on the threshold of civilised life and once again plunge backwards? It would be a universal defeat."
The speech, in Ekaterinburg's Palace of Youth, was swashbuckling and relaxed, although not without a dash of eccentricity. At one point, the President forgot the patronymic of his host, the region's governor and an erstwhile rival, Eduard Rossel, who was seen burying his head in his hands in apparent embarrassment.
Nor was this spirit confined to the hall. During a walkabout, Mr Yeltsin lambasted the Turks for interfering in Chechnya. And in a hall outside, one of his entourage, Viktor Mikhailov, Minister for Atomic Energy, amazed Western reporters by delivering a diatribe against the Americans, demanding to know why they thought they had "the right to" sail submarines armed with multiple nuclear warheads "on the world's oceans". If Nato expanded to Czechoslovakia, and placed tactical nuclear weapons on its soil, Russia would destroy them, he said. Anti-Nato rhetoric is a daily event but such language from a top official was scarcely in the president's interest.Reuse content