Yeltsin fears Red triumph

Phil Reeves in Moscow on how the Russians will vote today with empty wallets
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THIS WEEK Russian television viewers switched on their sets to find one of the more exotic Kremlin insiders chattering away about his close buddy, Boris Yeltsin. As Lieutenant General Alexander Korzhakov, head of the President's security detail, rarely performs in public, it was clear these were unusual circumstances.

If the wrong people get into the Russian parliament, then his boss might decide not to run for re-election next year, warned the bodyguard. "When we criticise the President, we sometimes don't think what will start if he doesn't run. It seems to me no good will come of it," he said, in a gruff display of loyalty.

Then the President's wife, Naina, stepped into the limelight, warning her fellow Russians that if they make the wrong political decision today they will regret it. Finally, on Friday, a slimmed-down Mr Yeltsin appeared in person, broadcasting a grim nationwide appeal in which he begged Russia not to turn the clock back and undo its reforms.

For weeks, the President has remained aloof from the political fray, preferring the serenity of a sanatorium in snow-clad woodlands outside Moscow - where he's recovering from heart trouble - to the sound and fury of the campaign trial. But, at the eleventh hour, he and his cronies broke cover to try to pre-empt what seems certain to be a considerable humiliation.

Pollsters and pundits almost all predict that today's elections to the state Duma, or lower house of parliament, will deliver success to the Communists, as voters avenge the injustices of Russia's rapid switch to a market economy. Although the party's precise colouring is still unclear - its leader, Gennady Zyuganov veers from moderate pro-reformism to tub- thumping red flag rhetoric - headlines across the globe will doubtless bellow the return of the red peril.

The outcome - at least in the short term - is likely to be less absolute. Even after the results have come in from the 95,000 polling booths, stretching across 11 time zones (including one constituency which is almost six times the size of France), the picture will almost certainly be complex. Few analysts expect the Communists to win more than 25 per cent - well short of gaining outright control of the 450-seat Duma. The extent of their power will depend on the alliances they forge.

However, a far deeper, more ominous, pulse runs through the contest. No Russian leader in a thousand years has left office voluntarily, and Boris Yeltsin may well be tempted to cancel next year's presidential contest if it is clear that he, or his anointed successor, cannot win. But every foreign diplomat still needs an answer to the same question: has the time come to loosen ties with Mr Yeltsin in favour of his eventual successor?

All the potential contenders have a stake in today's election. There is, for example, the enigmatic Mr Zyuganov, although it is far from clear whether he would have the backing of his party's influential hardliners. His critics say he lacks sufficient charisma for the Kremlin's top job, although he is by no means a poor public performer.

Charisma is one characteristic that retired General Alexander Lebed, hero of the Afghan war, is not lacking. Many Russians thrill to his gravel- voiced law-and-order anti-Western rhetoric, and his nationalist party, the Congress of Russian Communities, is expected to be one of five or six parties which muster enough votes (there is a 5 per cent hurdle) to qualify for the 225 Duma seats allocated under proportional representation.

There is also the darling of the West, Grigory Yavlinsky, 43, a Harvard- educated liberal economist who heads Yabloko, the party which represents the pro-reformists' best chance of success today. A tireless campaigner, who has raced around the country gleaning support, he makes no secret of the fact that he sees the whole contest as a bid for the presidency.

And finally there is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist who continues to rave about the evils of the West, while trying to market his bloated close-cropped features as a sex symbol. Russians frequently say they're tired of his antics, but he should not be dismissed lightly. His party can raise huge sums, and it knows how to run a well-organised campaign.

By contrast, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian Prime Minister (whom Western leaders would be delighted to see in the Kremlin), has seen his fortunes wane. Few expect his party "Our Home Is Russia", to do well. Recently he has struck a querulous note, complaining that "people are beginning to forget how they used to live four or five years ago".

In economic terms, his sense of injustice is not unreasonable. Monthly inflation is down to around 3 per cent, the lowest for four years. Output has stopped falling; the rouble has stabilised, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is pleased enough with Russia to consider a big increase in its $6.25bn (pounds 4bn) loan. "It's clear 1995 has been a turning point in the financial history of Russia," says Professor Richard Layard, of the London School of Economics.

But these factors have yet to percolate down to street level. Household spending has fallen by 6 per cent this year. The have-nots - for example, the teachers who went on strike across Russia this week, demanding millions in back pay - could not give a tinker's cuss about the IMF. They do care, though, about their demoralised army, high prices, lousy living conditions, and the traumatic war in Chechnya. In today's election, sadly for Mr Yeltsin and his loyal bodyguard, theirs are the voices that will prevail.