The President has portrayed his conduct as a matter of tactics, the resort of an unpopular leader facing an election that could oust him and return the Kremlin to the Communists. Reforms, he insists, will continue. So the last person you would expect to find him and his associates buttering up is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, maverick leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.
Yet there is evidence that the increasingly isolated Yeltsin administration and the Kremlin-backed Our Home is Russia political party are discreetly courting Mr Zhirinovsky in the hope of boosting their own chances of re- election. From the President's viewpoint, this makes sense on several fronts.
If he decides he is healthy enough to run for a second term, Mr Yeltsin's main opponents will be the Communists, who emerged as the strongest force in December's parliamentary polls, with 22 per cent of the vote, more than double that of Our Home is Russia.
The President has been seeking to woo their voters away by promising to improve the lot of their core constituents, Russians for whom free- market reforms have only meant more impoverishment. Recently he vowed to increase pensions and government pay, prompting Western fears that the government is heading for a pre-election spending spree that will play havoc with the economy. But Yeltsin strategists know no amount of hand-outs will beat the Communists outright. So the Kremlin is believed to be discreetly turning to Mr Zhirinovsky's party, which came second in December, in the hope it will also draw votes away from them, enough to ensure Mr Yeltsin gets into a run-off.
Ideally, they would like the run-off to be against Mr Zhirinovsky. Although his antics, which include demanding the annexation of Alaska, attracted 7 million protest votes, few believe Russians want him in the Kremlin. So Mr Yeltsin's victory would be assured.
It is more likely Mr Yeltsin would be pitted against a Communist, probably the party leader, Gennady Zyuganov. If so, the Yeltsin camp is likely to press Mr Zhirinovsky to call on his supporters to back the President in the second round.
Evidence of connections between the Kremlin and the ultra-nationalists is based on a scattering of details. This month the parliamentary leader of Our Home is Russia was caught by a television camera crew with a Zhirinovsky aide at Moscow's international airport. Both were off to Switzerland, apparently for inter-party talks. Last week the Moscow Times pointed out that Mr Zhirinovsky had a list of six Yeltsin ministers he wanted sacked. Five have since been kicked out. Meanwhile, Mr Zhirinovsky's bloc in the State Duma, the lower house, has been quietly supportive of Mr Yeltsin for several years.
Few analysts appear to dispute that some sort deal-making is under way. ''It makes sense,'' said Dmitri Trenin, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ''It works to bolster the President's chances.'' It also offers benefits for Mr Zhirinovsky, who knows he has little chance of victory, and has long been open to behind-the-scenes bartering. Kremlin support delivers many advantages, not least of which is better access to state-run television, limelight which the theatrical Mr Zhirinovsky adores.
"He wants to use the party in power to give him access to the real decision- making process, because that represents money. Zhirinovsky is funded by various interests who think he is a person with power who can do them a lot of good,'' said Mr Trenin.
Whether such manoeuvring will work remains to be seen, but Mr Yeltsin certainly has a huge task on his hands. The latest opinion poll by the All-Russian Centre for Public Opinion Research put Mr Zyuganov first, with 11.3 per cent. Mr Yeltsin's measly 5.4 per cent only won him fifth place.
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