Russian democratic bloc falls apart

It is a saga that brings to mind proverbs about organisational skills and breweries. Do not accept an invitation to drinks at a vodka factory, if Russia's so-called democratic politicians are the hosts: it would almost certainly be a flop.

With only a month to go before the first round of the presidential elections, efforts by three of the nation's better known candidates to join forces and offer an alternative to Boris Yeltsin, and the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, have collapsed in disarray.

Yet they are so far holding out against President Yeltsin - despite appeals from several leading pro-reform politicians urging anti-Communist candidates to unite around him, to avert the risk of ushering Mr Zyuganov into the Kremlin by splitting the vote.

The three men - Grigory Yavlinsky, the liberal economist, Alexander Lebed, a retired general and nationalist, and a famous eye surgeon, Svyatoslav Fyodorov, had planned to unite under the banner of a group called "Third Force". Their aim was to attract the large chunk of the Russian electorate who are disaffected by economic malaise and corruption of the Yeltsin regime, but do not want to risk a return to Soviet-style Communism.

The trio, who are among the 10 most popular politicians in the country, were considering selecting a single candidate to lead the group, based on their poll ratings. One survey suggested they had the combined support of 14 per cent, nearly two-thirds of Mr Zyuganov's rating. But after months of dithering, their initiative has collapsed. "We could not agree," said Dr Fyodorov, who made clear he blamed General Lebed for refusing to drop his candidacy.

Their demise is not as beneficial to Mr Yeltsin as it might seem. While he will be happy to see an end to the "Third Force", the trio are still ploughing ahead as individual candidates.

They could take votes from the Communists but their presence on the ballot - and particularly Mr Yavlinsky's - seems likely to be more damaging to the President, who has acknowledged this by trying to recruit them to his side, spawning speculation that they would be offered high positions in return for their support. Mr Yavlinsky, head of the popular Yabloko party (which won nearly 5 million votes in last year's parliamentary election) is touted as a replacement for the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Several days ago Mr Yeltsin tried to jumpstart a deal by publicly announcing that he was uniting with Mr Yavlinsky - the best-known and most powerful of the three - only to be embarrassingly contradicted. Mr Yavlinsky had earlier hinted that he was ready to do business with the Kremlin team, and even presented Mr Yeltsin with a list of policy proposals.

But, when Mr Yeltsin got too chummy, Mr Yavlinsky declared the chances of unity were about the same as those of the President "firing his entire executive staff and admitting the colossal failure of his policies". The gruff and ambitious General Lebed has - at least in public - waved away Mr Yeltsin's advances, saying he is no better than the Communists.

Russia and its closest ally in the former Soviet Union, Belarus, may form a new military alliance and strengthen positions on the border with Poland, which wants to join Nato, the Defence Minister, General Pavel Grachev, said yesterday, writes Christopher Bellamy.

"If our recommendations are not taken into account and if no new ways for co-operation are found between Russia and Nato we will take military steps in our western region," General Grachev said. His comments follow recent Russian statements expressing concern about what Moscow sees as Nato's eastward expansion.