Venturing out of Moscow for the first time since he ordered troops into Chechnya and plunged the capital's politics into turmoil, President Boris Yeltsin yesterday returned to his roots in provincial Russia and declared his subjects happy. "In general, the people are in a good mood. No slogans. No extremism. No attacks," said Mr Yeltsin during a day-trip to the deeply conservative city of Lipetsk, some 125 miles from Moscow.
The only weapons to be seen were firmly in the hands of his own scowling guards, dressed entirely in black with matching ski hats. Also on hand was a bus filled with Omon riot police in camouflage fatigues. They were not needed.
Nor did Mr Yeltsin need what he called "the little bag", the nuclear control briefcase which, after a stop at a cordoned-off sausage factory, he assured everyone, was securely at his side at all times. After worldwide jitters over an odd Russian news- agency report on Wednesday of a rocket launched at Russia, Mr Yeltsin suggested foreign mischief might lie behind the brief panic: "Maybe someone was trying to test us," he said. "The mass media goes on and on saying: `Weak army, weak army'."
After a few brief conversations with respectful, albeit unenthusiastic, workers, Mr Yeltsin spent most of the day buttering up local officials in a region led by an old-school Communist boss, Mihail Narolin. "This is a classic party visit, an inspection tour by the General Secretary," scoffed Vitaly Bezrukov, editor of a struggling reform-minded magazine, Panorama, and a bitterly disillusioned liberal who helped run Mr Yeltsin's election campaign three years ago.
The choice of a conservative stronghold like Lipetsk for what Mr Yeltsin announced as the first series of monthly jaunts to the provinces demonstrates how far he has moved from the constituency that led his triumphal election campaign in 1991 and how different his strategy will be should he decide to stand again next year.
In virtual seclusion inside the Kremlin since November, Mr Yeltsin offered reassuring words about the war in the Caucasus: "I encouraged workers to ask questions about Chechnya and they told me it is high time to end the conflict," he said after a visit to the Novolipetsk Iron and Steel Works, a model factory of some 50,000 workers. "I told them we wanted with all our heart to end the conflict quickly and peacefully.
"We held a Security Council meeting yesterday. The military stage of the Chechen operation is over and now it is the Interior Ministry's job.''
But this was little comfort to Ludmilla Komerovna, distraught mother of a soldier from the Interior Ministry's Dzerzhinsky Division now in Chechnya. Omitted from the official programme, she thought briefly of throwing herself in front of the motorcade. Instead, she went shopping. "My only request is give back my son ... We have been robbed [by reform] and now they take our boys, too. He is the only thing left in my life.''
The Lipetsk branch of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, the driving force behind Russia's anti-war movement, had wanted to stage a quiet protest but was defeated by the Kremlin's secrecy. "We did not hear he was coming until it was too late," said Irina Martinova, the organisation's head. Eight soldiers from Lipetsk have been confirmed dead.
But the point of coming to Lipetsk, admitted the President's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, was to get away from the clamour around Chechnya. "In recent times the focus has been on Chechnya. Though the events there are very serious and dramatic, it is important to show the Russia of working people and that the majority of the country is stable and calm, where people live normally without violence."
Keen to offer a less serene view was Olga Vostikova, a worker at the ironworks. "You can't even go out any more. Everyone has iron bars and steel doors. There is crime everywhere. Everything is falling apart." To tell Mr Yeltsin this, Mrs Vostikova, waited at a factory shop on his itinerary. But he never showed up; this stop was dropped from the programme. Not that anyone complained. The shop had been restocked for the occasion with piles of fresh meat, fish and chicken.Reuse content