Yeltsin's wagon rolls slowly in the countryside: Activists are organising for the referendum, writes Andrew Higgins in Voronezh

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ALEXEI SAFONOV, full-time plumber and part-time political campaigner, admits it has been a slow start: a bad cold kept him in bed; then he could not find anyone to lend him a car; then his antique typewriter broke.

He did manage to draft an impassioned appeal, handwritten on a crumpled bit of paper he keeps stuffed in the pocket of his leather jacket. He reads it aloud: 'Everything depends on YOU. It is up to you to decide which power should rule. We are sick and tired of endless speeches by pseudo-democrats. In this time of crisis Russia needs a strong president to restore order.'

Fine sentiments that many certainly share. Few, though, are likely to hear them because Mr Safonov has no money to get his message printed and only a handful of volunteers to get it distributed among the 28,000 voters he has promised to try and win over before 25 April.

And so, with little fanfare and much confusion, did Mr Safonov launch a drive to drum up support for President Boris Yeltsin in the Olkhovatsky district, a deeply conservative swathe of lethargic, vodka-soaked collective farms and muddy villages near the border with Ukraine.

With less than three weeks to go before Russians are asked to pass judgement on President Yeltsin and free-market reform, the struggle to decide who should run Russia and how has shifted from feuding professional politicians in Moscow to amateur activists in towns and villages across the country.

While President Yeltsin was in Vancouver pleading for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, Mr Safonov made a journey of his own to the regional capital, Voronezh, where, around a wooden conference table, he joined a dozen like-minded campaigners to discuss their more modest - but probably more important - needs.

Mr Safonov needs a car and a few days leave from his job at the Water Supply Bureau in Olkhovatsky. 'How can I campaign when I have to fiddle with pipes all day long?' he asks.

Nikolai Morozev, chief propagandist for the Voronezh Committee for Support of the President, needs paper for posters and glue to paste them up on walls; Katerina Morgunova, a member of the Democratic Party of Russia, needs the names and phone numbers of businessmen who might donate a few thousands roubles.

And everyone needs a clear message from Mr Yeltsin on whether there will be one referendum or two. 'It is very difficult to organise when you don't know what the campaign is for,' Mr Morozov complains.

So far, the word from Moscow is that there will only be one vote on 25 April and it will be held according to rules set by the Congress of People's Deputies. President Yeltsin had toyed with the idea of holding his own personal plebiscite but now seems ready to accept terms stacked against him by the Soviet-era legislature.

Instead of a simple choice between Mr Yeltsin and Congress, voters will probably face four questions: Do you trust Mr Yeltsin? Do you support his economic policies? Do you want early elections for parliament? Do you want the same for the presidency?

To win outright, President Yeltsin has been told he must secure the support of half of the entire electorate - not just those who vote. His supporters in Voronezh, where he won 57 per cent of the vote in 1991 (identical to the national result), believe this to be impossible. But they hope for a solid enough mandate to keep Mr Yeltsin in the Kremlin.

'The referendum will solve nothing. Everything will stay the same,' says Viktor Davydkin, President Yeltsin's be leaguered local representative. 'But muddle is better than defeat.'

Mr Yeltsin is severely handicapped. The local soviet - or council - is against him, its chairman, Ivan Shabanov, used to be the local Communist Party secretary. So, too, are state farm bosses and many state factory directors.

'Our factory has not been privatised and it will not be privatised either,' says Georgy Kostin, lord and master over 18,000 workers at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant and a founder member of both the National Salvation Front and a revived Communist Party. 'I will explain to my staff how to vote.'

With no well-organised political party of his own, Mr Yeltsin must counter such foes and others like them across the country by relying on a plethora of hastily formed support groups and the fragmented remains of a coalition that helped him win the 1991 presidential poll.

Mr Safonov, the plumber, is a typical Yeltsin loyalist. He organised a rural chapter of the Democratic Party of Russia during the 1991 campaign and, a few months later, produced pamphlets and poetry condemning the Moscow putsch. Of all Mr Yeltsin's fans, though, he now has one of the most difficult tasks - breaking the grip of torpor and Communism in the countryside.

It was hard enough getting the votes for Mr Yeltsin two years ago. Only 30 per cent voted for him in Olkhovatsky, where collective farm bosses still hold sway and will do all they can to stop the President's plans to divide the land. Many villages voted overwhelming for the Communist Party candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov. Support was also strong for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose platform of cheap vodka and rabid nationalism won him 41 per cent of the vote in one electoral district.

Mr Safonov, though, remembers the 1991 campaign as his moment of triumph: 'We were a lot stronger then,' he says. 'Our party had 30 members. Now we have only 15. It's really hard being a democrat now.'