Battered President rediscovers the power of inertia

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On the way to his Zil limousine after a tour of the Novolipetsk Iron and Steel Works, Boris Yeltsin took a brief detour from the carefully scripted programme and paused to practise his old forte: listening to ordinary Russians complain about the m isery of their lives.

A woman shouted about having to live in a wooden shack infested with rats; another complained about paltry salaries, while a desperate middle-aged man told the President how he had lost his job, and pleaded for help.

Though brief - the motorcade was waiting and Mr Yeltsin's security guards, even more jittery than usual because of the war in Chechnya, were getting anxious - it was just the type of encounter that used to make local apparatchiks across the land tremble with fear.

No more. This was Mr Yeltsin's response to the woes of the unemployed worker: "I have complete faith in the head of your local administration." The regional governor, Mikhail Narolin, beamed with delight.

Mr Yeltsin's visit to Lipetsk, south of Moscow, was his first journey into the provinces since he sent troops into Chechnya on 11 December. But the trip offered more than just respite from the clamour of the capital. Billed as the first in a series of monthly excursions, it also revealed how Mr Yeltsin hopes to stay in the Kremlin despite an approval rating last recorded at just over 10 per cent and falling.

The strategy is built around people like Mr Narolin, undisputed baron of one of the country's most conservative regions in the "black-earth" zone of central Russia. He represents a tradition Mr Yeltsin knows well from his own 17 years as party secretary in Sverdlovsk and which, now that the excitement and hope of street rallies have faded, again dominates politics.

A former deputy chief of the local Communist Party administration, Mr Narolin suffered a brief period of disgrace following the 1991 putsch but then revived his own career - and that of a phalanx of other ousted local officials - by winning a highly dubious gubernatorial election that, nearly two years later, is still being haggled over in the courts.

When Mr Yeltsin first ran for the presidency in 1991, he campaigned on his image as the scourge of a complacent and corrupt Communist Party apparatus. Today, with presidential elections less than 18 months away, he seems to have placed his hopes in the power of inertia, the very force he previously cursed as the root of Russia's ills.

Mr Yeltsin has yet to announce formally whether he intends to stand again. Many liberals doubt the election will be held. They warn of a possible military coup by Russia's humiliated and impoverished military or an attempt by the Kremlin to cancel or postpone the poll.

In 1991, Mr Yeltsin secured 74 per cent of the vote in Lipetsk city and 61 per cent in the region. In parliamentary elections in December 1993, though, the organisation that campaigned on his name and policies, Russia's Choice, won barely 10 per cent, while Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Liberal Democratic Party emerged as the big winner in Lipetsk with nearly a third of the vote.

Disenchantment has grown, the public's discontent over the economy aggravated by anxiety over war in the Caucasus.

"We don't believe anything or anyone. We have to get rid of the old government and bring in the young ones," said Alexandra Kostikova at the steel works. "I don't know who they are yet but people who are not mixed up in all this."

But, while most of those who voted for Mr Yeltsin in 1991 now say they would like to see someone else in the Kremlin, few can think of who this might be. This is Mr Yeltsin's great hope and why, in the absence of any public passion for politics, regionalleaders like Mr Narolin, who control local newspapers, television and vote counting, are so important.

Oleg Suvorovna, a 30-year-old computer engineer, scoffed at Mr Yeltsin's trip to Lipetsk as a visit worthy of Leonid Brezhnev and derided Russia's political class as "smeared in the same ignorant filth". But he admitted that, if faced with a choice between Mr Zhirinovsky and Mr Yeltsin, he would reluctantly cast his vote for the status quo.

"Many will still support Yeltsin not because they think he is good but because they worry about getting worse," predicted Dmitri Pitertsev, a disillusioned democrat who, despite a job in the Lipetsk office of the region's presidential representative, believes Mr Yeltsin has betrayed the constituency that put brought him to power in 1991.

"After the 1991 putsch failed, a great wave of reform swept democrats into positions of power," he said, "But when things calmed down the old apparat got its revenge." The main target of this revenge in places like Lipetsk were the people who had supported Mr Yeltsin. But, if the Kremlin's calculations are correct, it is the return of the old guard that now offers Mr Yeltsin the best, probably only, hope of salvaging his own fortunes.