Yeltsin breaks ice in Arctic town

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There were no smiles, no cheers, not even a wave. Most of the gazes that greeted Boris Yeltsin's motorcade as it swept through this coal-mining town were frostier than the Arctic tundra that surrounds it.

Such was the hush along Lenin Street that a less determined politician would have headed back to Moscow, abandoning Vorkuta, a former gulag where thousands of Stalin's prisoners perished, as a lost cause.

But with three weeks to go before the first round of the presidential election, Mr Yeltsin is proving nothing if not dogged. He arrived knowing he had lost the support of most miners in Vorkuta, a town so fed up with late wages and declining living standards that it turned to the ultra- nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky at the December parliamentary election.

In what is now his standard campaign tactic Mr Yeltsin sought to dazzle them with personal flamboyance and hard cash. Cladding himself in miner's overalls and a hard hat, he set off down a coalmine, 700m below the permafrost. Even if it did not add to the strain on his heart, it certainly tired his economic advisers, who have watched him dole out one bag of gold after another in the pursuit of votes. His latest promise was to subsidise holidays in the southern sunshine for the children of Vorkuta, a move calculated to play on the nostalgia for the perks of the Soviet era. On the eve of his visit, the miners' unpaid February wages also suddenly materialised.

It may pay dividends. Vorkuta has little evident appetite for his opponent, Gennady Zyug-anov, the leader of the Communists who claims to represent a national-patriotic bloc. Though angry with Yeltsin, the town may yet turn to him again.

He has another potential ace within his grasp. Last night, it was unclear if talks between the President and the Chechen leader, Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev, would go ahead in Moscow today. But, although they are both ridden by divisions, Chechens and Russians seem inclined to go ahead soon.

Even if negotiations fail, they will help the Kremlin foster the impression of progress on resolving the war. The Chechens, mindful that this is their best chance for a deal, will have placed themselves in the strange position of delivering a triumph to the President who destroyed their capital, Grozny.