Yeltsin leaves civil war card on the table

Russian election: President backs Communists' insistence on 16 June poll but hints at trouble ahead

Boris Yeltsin delivered a masterful political lesson in the art of having your cake and eating it yesterday as he weighed into the squall caused by his chief of security and personal confidant, Alexander Korzhakov, who suggested that the forthcoming presidential elections should be postponed to avoid civil unrest.

The president, who is lagging behind the Communists' Gennady Zyuganov in most polls, said the election should go ahead on time and rebuked his aide, advising him to stop meddling in politics and keep quiet. "I trust in the wisdom of the Russian voters," he said.

Yet Mr Yeltsin was equally quick to reinforce his security chief's efforts to drum up fears that there will be civil strife if the election goes ahead and the Kremlin falls into the hands of the Communists: "Several people . . . believe that Zyuganov's victory would be the beginning of a civil war," he said.

The remarks by Lt-Gen Korzhakov, head of the presidential guard - who insists he was speaking personally - fanned speculation the Kremlin is cooking up a plan to put off the 16 June elections, a rumour that has been bubbling away in the cauldron of Moscow politics despite repeated assurances to the contrary by Mr Yeltsin. The rumour is understandable, but improbable. The president is struggling to catch the Communists, even though Russia's untrustworthy polls show him narrowing the gap.

Although his administration is manipulating much of the national media (despite his complaints that the local Russian papers have been "libelling" him), Mr Yeltsin is haunted by a long list of public grievances - not least his failure to settle the conflict in Chechnya.

Moreover, his entourage is likely to regard handing over power as desirable as jumping in the filthy river Moskva.

The Korzhakov affair produced a flurry of condemnations from across the political spectrum, most of which served to prove little more than the election season is well under way.

The Communist chairman of the State Duma, Gennady Seleznyov, accused Mr Yeltsin of "rocking the boat"; Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist, said it was a sign the Kremlin knew it was losing; Viktor Anpilov, head of a small but influential Stalinist branch of the Communists, warned a delay could lead to civil war.

It is not all rhetoric: Russia is divided; civil war is not impossible. But the presidential bodyguard's activities have more to do with trying to whip up fears over the "red peril" than any serious strategy.

In this, it probably failed. As he races around the country at a speed that must cause furrowed brows among his doctors, Mr Yeltsin would do better to stick to a more orthodox script, such as pointing out that - according to government statistics (which here, as elsewhere, should be handled with care) - the inflation rate for April dropped to 2.2 per cent, a record since the reforms began.

Whether the administration can sustain that figure is questionable - the Kremlin has been splashing out money in the hope of buying votes - but it is a useful short-term achievement, and a lot more sensible than letting loose the presidential bodyguard.

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