Yeltsin ducks out of campaign trail ordeal: Many Russians who put their faith in the President now feel he has little to offer. Andrew Higgins reports on his attempt to woo Siberian voters

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The Independent Online
THE OLD LADY had gold teeth, wore a scarf over her head and was spitting with anger. She barged her way through a crowd of Siberian coalminers and confronted Boris Yeltsin in front of his bullet-proof Zil limousine. 'How can I live on 6,000 roubles a month?' she shouted.

Yes, conceded Mr Yeltsin, life is hard. The woman was not impressed: 'What have you done to our country? Everyone is stealing, the mafia runs riot.' Mr Yeltsin had heard enough. 'Don't vote then,' he snorted. 'That is your right.' Bodyguards pushed the woman away.

So began Mr Yeltsin's first - and possibly last - foray out of Moscow to convince ordinary Russians that he deserves their vote of confidence when they go to the polls next Sunday. The venture was not a success. For a man who built his career on a reputation for mucking in with the masses - riding on buses, sending his wife to queue for sausage and shunning extravagant party privileges - President Yeltsin is conducting a very odd campaign for the 25 April referendum.

There are no rallies; no pauses in his official motorcade to allow a quick round of gladhanding on the street. He has met foreign ambassadors, students, coalminers and industrialists. All such encounters, though, are stictly invitation only. The people who will decide his fate - more than 100 million voters scattered across 11 time zones - are not invited.

The venue for the President's first campaign stop outside Moscow was carefully chosen. The miners of western Siberia's Kuzbass coalfield have done more to help Mr Yeltsin over the years than any other single group of Russian workers. 'They supported me in the most difficult of times - the most difficult moment,' Mr Yeltsin said upon his arrival in the Siberian coal capital of Novokuznetsk, 1,900 miles east of Moscow.

But will they do so again now? 'None of us supports Yeltsin. That was before,' said a young miner at the Abashevskaya mine, mocking what now seems like ancient history: the distant age only two years ago when Kuzbass miners went on strike to press for political change in Moscow. 'Yeltsin has given us nothing.' But Sergei Chekhov, an older man, said: 'We all support him, without exception.'

Both are wrong. Russia's coalfields, like the rest of Russia, are divided. Here, as everywhere else, there is only muddle. Next week's referendum, divided into four questions - on Mr Yeltsin, his economic reforms and early elections for parliament and the presidency - is unlikely to solve anything. A poll of Kuzbass residents asked whom they trust: 22 per cent said Mr Yeltsin; 21 per cent the Congress of People's Deputies; nearly half said no one.

Such wariness is shared by Mr Yeltsin himself. He too finds it increasingly hard to trust anyone. His Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, has mutinied. His Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, has started to snipe at his programme of privatisation. Many others have simply lost interest. They may support him next week, but they will do so with little enthusiasm.

President Yeltsin's reception at Novokuznetsk's airport on Tuesday seemed designed to remind him of what he is up against. Leading the welcoming committee was Aman Tuleyev, an old conservative rival from the 1991 presidential race. He got clobbered by Mr Yeltsin, coming a distant fourth out of six candidates but there is no doubt today about who commands more authority in western Siberia. As chairman of the local Soviet or council, Mr Tuleyev is grand Poo Bah for the region's closet and not-so-closet communists. He makes no attempt to disguise his distaste for Mr Yeltsin.

The only fervent Yeltsin fans waiting on the tarmac are a flamboyant local millionaire, Maxim Bakayan, and his girlfriend, who has dressed for the occasion in a micro-skirt and had her hair dyed flaming red. They arrive at the airport in a chauffeur-driven stretch Lincoln limousine with smoked windows, California licence plates and a portrait of Mr Yeltsin pasted to the windshield. Mr Bakayan boasts of plans to fly miners to Moscow to provide muscle for beleaguered reformers.

In Novokuznetsk last Tuesday, pensioners groused about their savings and miners grumbled that Mr Yeltsin had defaulted on his political debts, and demanded prompt payment with concrete economic rewards.

Mr Yeltsin got the message. He pleaded for more time before coal prices were jacked up to anything near the world market level. Any increase now, he said, would be a catastrophe. 'All of Russia will explode.' But, repeating what has become the main feature of his referendum campaign, he offered a hastily devised populist promise: he would in effect give the mine away to its workers. Other groups of voters have been promised a range of different economic goodies: students are to receive higher stipends, Afghan war veterans better benefits, poverty- stricken Russians a two-fold increase in the minimum wage. Where the money will come from no one knows.

For every complaint Mr Yeltsin heard in Siberia, though, there were a thousand blank looks from people unaware - or at least unconcerned - that anything had happened. The local newspaper previewed the event with a carping front-page article noteworthy only for the fact that it managed to ignore Mr Yeltsin almost entirely. Gone are the days when visiting dignitaries from Moscow were cheered through the streets by flag-waving children and hailed at every factory gate by 'spontaneously' gleeful workers. The only preparations for Mr Yeltsin were a few tractors sent out the night before to clear away the most conspicuous piles of rubbish.

At the end of the summit meeting in Vancouver two weeks ago, he vowed to campaign tirelessly for the referendum. He seems to have changed his mind. No one doubts that Mr Yeltsin knows how to fight a hard campaign. He has been accused of many things - demagoguery, drunkenness, populist gimmicks and treachery to name just a few of the charges hurled at him each day by Pravda and other pro-communist publications - but political sloth is not among them. He has already fought and won two elections, a parliamentary poll in 1989 and the presidential race in 1991. Next Sunday's vote, though, is more tricky.

Rules fixed for the referendum by his enemies in the Congress of People's Deputies make it all but impossible for him to win, stipulating that he must gain support from half the entire electorate - not just the turnout. Mr Yeltsin dismisses such rules as 'a crude violation of the constitution', and says a vote of confidence from half the turnout will mark a victory. But even this could be difficult.

Across Russia Mr Yeltsin's supporters have set up hastily organised committees to try to get out the vote. There is much grumbling, though, that neither Mr Yeltsin nor his aides in Moscow is doing enough to help. In Novosibirsk, a sprawling industrial wasteland 187 miles west of Novokuznetsk, local campaigners are flummoxed. The only help they have had from Moscow so far, says Anatoli Manokhin, Mr Yeltsin's local representative, is an offer to send out a group of ageing actresses. 'We sent a message saying it would be better if they didn't come.'

Is Mr Yeltsin simply too exhausted from months of political feuding in Moscow to do what he does best: rouse ordinary people? Or has he decided he can win more votes staying in Moscow and dishing out favours from the central budget? Whatever the strategy, he admits that he is far from certain that it will work. 'It would be unwise to be sure of victory,' he told workers and managers at Novokuznetsk's steelworks.

(Photograph omitted)

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