The man with an uncertain future ...

Yeltsin v Zyuganov: Run-off for Russian presidency pits sick reformist against shady apparatchik

Boris Yeltsin goes into today's presidential election as the firm favourite, boosted by residual fears of Communism, a gradual economic recovery, the partisan support of most Russian media and a constitution that fails to specify how he would relinquish power should he lose.

If the odds are stacked overwhelmingly in favour of a Yeltsin victory, the political course that he may chart during a four-year second term in office is less clear. The question of his health seems unlikely to be decisive in influencing voters, since Russian television and newspapers have barely touched on his recent absence from public view and have deliberately muffled the cries of his Communist opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, that the President is too ill to govern.

The public television network, ORT, refused on Monday to air an advertisement for Mr Zyuganov, ostensibly because the Communists had not paid for it but more probably because the network's pro-Yeltsin executives feared the commercial's emphasis on corruption and disarray in the Kremlin. The main risk of embarrassment to the President lies in the possibility that today's turn-out will fall below the 60 per cent Mr Yeltsin's strategists and independent analysts believe is essential to his re-election.

They say Mr Zyuganov will benefit from the support of a hard core of disciplined loyalists but will find it difficult to expand his vote beyond this base, making a low turn-out the key. Since the first round, when 69.8 per cent of registered voters cast ballots and Mr Yeltsin took 35.3 per cent of the vote to Mr Zyuganov's 32 per cent, the pro-Yeltsin camp has spared no efforts to remind voters of the violence and terror endured under Communism. Millions of copies of a propaganda sheet called Ne Dai Bog ("God Forbid") have been stuffed into people's letter boxes, displaying pictures of Stalin's victims hanging in a public square.

Mr Yeltsin can count on the support of the reformist electorates of Moscow, St Petersburg and other large cities, where the benefits of the transition to a market economy are most apparent. But even in these areas, some voters are expected to abstain in protest at Mr Yeltsin's decision to bring Alexander Lebed, the retired general and law-and-order candidate of the first round, into his administration.

Yesterday, Gen Lebed apologised for remarks he made last week criticising the Mormon church. He caused an international stir when he called that and other non-Russian churches "filth and scum", and vowed to ban them from Russia.

"I didn't want to offend anyone. I apologise," he told a news conference. He also amended his comment of last week that Russia has only three traditional religions. His ommission of Judaism had alarmed some of the country's 1.5 million Jews.

"When I said those three religions, they were like an example," he said. "Yes, [Judaism] exists, just like Catholicism." However, Gen Lebed stuck by his call to ban foreign religions. His remarks followed another startling intervention in the campaign, when Gen Lebed announced on television on Monday evening that a second Yeltsin term would spell death for Russian criminals.

"We'll shoot people, but reasonably, with minimal losses for the law enforcement bodies, and only those people who refuse to be persuaded. He who shoots first laughs last," he said.

With the Russian parliament under Communist domination, some Russian commentators expect Mr Yeltsin to follow up an election victory by forming a coalition government, led by his Prime Minister, the mildly reformist Viktor Chernomy-rdin, but including the Communists in some portfolios.

If Mr Yeltsin chooses this path, it may represent an attempt as much to split the Communists, the best-organised opposition party, as to heal the political divisions exposed by the election campaign. Should Mr Zyuganov defeat Mr Yeltsin, it is far from clear he would step smoothly into the President's shoes, since Mr Yeltsin's 1993 constitution states that the transfer of power "should be stipulated by the law".

In May Mr Yeltsin blocked a law, passed by parliament, that set out a procedure for handing over presidential power.

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