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RUSSIAN ELECTIONS : Yeltsin rams home his final message

Boris Yeltsin, master of political theatre, returned to his roots yesterday to bring his campaign for re-election to a climax at a rock concert in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. On home territory, he was assured of an enthusiastic crowd of thousands as he urged voters to keep faith with his reforms and rebuff the Communist challenge. "All Russia is behind us," he roared before the deafening music started up. "We deserve a better life. Over five years we have suffered a lot of blows. But we have also learned a great deal. Now we must not give way. We must be together. Then we will win. That is certain."

Since he came to Yekaterinburg in February to launch his bid for another term in the Kremlin, Mr Yeltsin has risen from the political dead. Then, lagging far behind Gennady Zyuganov, it seemed there was little he could do to prevent a return to Communism. But on Thursday one opinion poll showed him 11 points ahead of Mr Zyuganov with the support of around 34 per cent.

Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Russia however - and contradictory. Another poll yesterday put Mr Zyuganov ahead by two points. Analysts were warning against writing off Mr Zyuganov, whose campaign, less charismatic than the president's, but also unfairly treated by the blatantly pro-Yeltsin media, has criticised the heavy social costs of the transition to capitalism.

It is unlikely any of the 10 candidates, including the liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the nationalist retired general Alexander Lebed, will win an overall majority on Sunday. So a run-off, probably between Mr Yeltsin and Mr Zyuganov, is the expected scenario. Some commentators think the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has been underestimated and could come third to hold the balance of power.

All sides are talking about the risk of vote-rigging and the outcome of the election not being respected. On the surface, the campaign has been a carnival but a tense atmosphere lurks below.

Security forces are on alert to avoid a repeat of this week's terrorist bomb on the Moscow Metro which both Mr Yeltsin and Mr Zyuganov turned to their advantage. The Communist said it illustrated how violent Russia has become, while the President said the right response was to vote for the stability only he could guarantee.

If Mr Yeltsin does indeed hold on to power for another four years, it will be because, for many voters, he is the devil they know. And because he has had the courage, or perhaps rather the self-preserving instinct, to play the flawed hero and seek forgiveness for his errors.

The President's biggest regret of course is the war in Chechnya, which he has tried to end. But he has been unable or unwilling to rein in Doku Zavgayev, head of the puppet government he installed, and local elections, fraught with the risk of violence, are going ahead there on Sunday despite a promise to the separatists that they would be called off.

"Because of Chechnya, Yeltsin must be punished," said one Moscow voter yesterday. "I want him to win in the end, but first he must sweat a bit. Which is why I'm voting for Yavlinksy in the first round."