Yeltsin launches bid for re-election

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Undeterred by fresh fighting in Chechnya and a chorus of economists' criticism over Russia's new union with Belarus, Boris Yeltsin yesterday formally registered himself as a candidate for June's presidential election.

After his campaign team handed over 1 million signatures of support and his tax declaration, showing he earned the equivalent of $6,000 last year, the Central Election Commission gave him the go-ahead to start officially wooing the voters.

Mr Yeltsin was second on the list of registered candidates after the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who managed to gather his signatures first. He is also second in the opinion polls with a predicted 21 per cent of the vote compared with Mr Zyuganov on 27 per cent. But he hopes to finish in the lead and regain his Kremlin office.

There was one piece of encouraging news for Mr Yeltsin yesterday when Father Gleb Yakunin, a democratically-inclined Orthodox priest who spent years in Soviet prisons for his beliefs, declared his support for the incumbent President. Mr Yeltsin's candidacy constituted a "lesser evil", he said.

But other leading democrats, including Yelena Bonner, the widow of the human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov, have thrown their weight behind Grigory Yavlinsky, the market reformer who is expected to register his candidacy shortly. The extreme nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the more moderate nationalist, General Alexander Lebed, have also declared their intentions of running.

It is because of the disastrous war in Chechnya that Mr Yeltsin has lost the support of many democrats who helped to bring him to power in 1991. On Sunday he unveiled a belated peace initiative, promising a partial troop withdrawal and even offering talks through mediators with the separatist leader, General Dzhokhar Dudayev. But a vicious attack on the village of Shalazhi in south-west Chechnya yesterday threw the plan into doubt.

The commander of Moscow's forces in Chechnya, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, strenuously denied his forces were involved in the attack, raising suspicions that it could have been the work of hardliners in the Russian military intent on wrecking chances of peace.

There were conflicting reports about General Dudayev's attitude to Mr Yeltsin's initiative. Tass news agency said he had dismissed it out of hand when he appeared on Chechen TV late on Tuesday, using a secret transmitter. He vowed to fight "to the last Chechen" unless all Russian troops left.

But Interfax news agency, quoting sources close to the rebel leader, said he had given approval for a member of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow to meet President Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan, who has offered his services as a mediator.

Mr Yeltsin may be struggling to keep the Russian Federation intact but he is hoping to persuade voters that he is having more success in bringing former Soviet republics back into voluntary partnership.

On Tuesday he signed an agreement with the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, on the creation of a common market.

But yesterday Russian economists criticised the treaty as hasty and harmful to the interests of their country, which has made far more progress in market reform than Belarus. "It is either impossible to implement what the treaty says or it would lead to grave consequences," said Alexander Pochinok, head of the State Duma's tax sub-committee.