Russian parties make free with promises

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The Independent Online
PHIL REEVES

Moscow

Bedridden and unpopular he may be, but Boris Yeltsin is not being deterred from making the most of his presidential powers to garner votes in next month's parliamentary elections.

Russia's disenchanted electors are being bombarded by pre-election promises, many of which are cooked up in the Kremlin in an effort to boost the lukewarm support for the government-backed party headed by the Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

In the last week alone, the President, who has been in hospital since 26 October with a heart ailment, has revealed a scheme to pay pensions on time in an attempt to win over the elderly - a key constituency. He has also instructed the government to set up a fund to compensate millions of Russian investors who were victims of financial swindles in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And Mr Chernomyrdin, head of "Our Home Is Russia" party, has told military commanders the government will pay all its arrears to the armed forces, including several months of back wages owed to servicemen.

Such moves reflect the level of concern within the Yeltsin government about the likely outcome of the parliamentary elections, which is both a crucial test of Russia's fledgling democracy and a means of gauging Mr Yeltsin's re-election chances next year. With just under a month to go, the Communists are comfortably ahead in the opinion polls.

The government has the advantage of being in power, but it is not alone in its willingness to go to some lengths to manipulate public opinion. For all their nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric, it is clear that many of the 43 parties or blocs contesting the election are happy to crib from the books of their Western counterparts.

So-called "attack" advertisements abound. In Moscow, a giant billboard has appeared, paid for by a small liberal-nationalist party, which targets the leader of the Communists, Gennady Zyuganov: "Fifty million victims of the civil war, collectivisation and repression would not vote for Zyuganov," it says.

Mr Chernomyrdin and his aides are not averse to the odd US-style stunt, as Muscovites discovered last week when they were treated to a concert by the rapper MC Hammer, courtesy of "Our Home Is Russia". Precisely how much Hammer knew about his hosts is questionable, as he was heard backstage demanding to know more about them. On learning that the party had the backing of Mr Yeltsin himself, the rapper reportedly announced, with evident relief: "If America can do business with them, Hammer can do business with them."

Mr Chernomyrdin also made an unsubtle attempt to win over the news media by unveiling a package of measures, including VAT relief, aimed at helping Russia's cash-starved media - a move which he accompanied with a request to broadcasters to avoid selling extra airtime to "odious" candidates.

He did not specify precisely who he meant by this, but it is fair to assume that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist leader of the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party, falls into that category. Mr Zhirinovsky's mastery of television advertising is one reason why his party stunned the outside world in the 1993 elections by winning 22.9 per cent of the vote - well ahead of its rivals. His ratings have since plummeted.

n President Yeltsin appeared on television yesterday for the third time since he was taken to hospital and jokingly told cameramen to photograph him from all sides to prove he is not paralysed, AP reports.

Meeting Mr Chernomyrdin in the presence of a camera crew and photographers, Mr Yeltsin then circled a small table to display himself from all sides.

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