Boris Yeltsin's government yesterday launched a belated attack on Russia's popular Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, in an attempt to spoil his public relations triumph at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Evidently exasperated by the international attention being lavished on his rival, President Yeltsin mounted a counter-attack through his economics minister, Yevgeny Yasin, who warned that Mr Zyuganov would strangle Russia's fragile economy if he won the forthcoming presidential election.
"If he came to power and implemented the policies he talks about to Russians, it would be fatal for the Russian economy," Mr Yasin told a press conference in Davos. Western business executives had been "flying round" Mr Zyuganov "like flies at the honey pot," he added sourly. His attack coincided with criticism of Mr Yeltsin for breaking a promise to attend the conference in person, thus allowing Mr Zyuganov to become the number one attraction at the ski resort as international business and political leaders crowded in to listen to his reassurances about supporting a mixed economy, private property, and foreign investment.
"If he [Yeltsin] had kept his promise and come, he would have prevented Zyuganov from becoming a superstar," wrote Mikhail Berger, economics editor of Izvestia. "Yeltsin reneged, saying there weren't enough people of his rank in Davos. Perhaps that would have been a good reason to go?"
Matters worsened for the Kremlin on Monday when Anatoly Chubais, the recently fired head of Russia's privatisation programme, weighed into the Communist leader, predicting that his renationalisation plans would cause a bloodbath in Russia and accusing him of being a "traditional, classic Communist lie".
Mr Chubais's speech, also at Davos, may have caused a raised glass or two in Wall Street, but it will have made many Russians still more inclined to turn to Mr Zyuganov, who - though yet to be made the Communists' candidate - is well ahead in the polls. Even die-hard liberals admit that there are very few more unpopular politicians than Mr Chubais.
With less than five months before the election , the episode is yet another frustration for the embattled Mr Yeltsin and his increasingly hardline inner circle, whose campaign to resurrect his fortunes has been thwarted by own-goals and setbacks. Bryan Appleyard, page 15