A worried Boris Yeltsin made a last-minute effort last night to head off predicted Communist gains in tomorrow's Russian parliamentary elections. In a national television address to fellow Russians, he begged them not to allow the "forces of the past to come to power", but to preserve the nation's "fragile stability".
Yet as he sought to claw back support from a disillusioned public, Russia received another unpleasant reminder of his regime's disastrous war in Chechnya, where fighting continued for a second day and rebels took control of another town.
Looking relatively fit after his recent heart attack, Mr Yeltsin told viewers that some of the 43 parties fighting for seats in the State Duma, or lower house, harboured the "dangerous" desire to return to the past, but it would be a "tragic" mistake - a reference to the Communist Party which is predicted to come first, taking at least 15 per cent of the vote.
"Neither centralised planning nor strict regulation of prices can bring salvation," he said, "The economy never worked well on commands. It cannot be improved by a general's order. I am well aware of the scale of the problems ... but we are nevertheless moving to a quieter, normal and decent life."
Until last night the president, who is convalescing after heart trouble, has remained largely aloof from the election campaign. He did not specifically name any party, but made clear his support for the government-backed centrist party, Our Home Is Russia, led by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, by intoning one of their slogans - calling for "stability and accord in our common home, Russia".
In an effort to shake many Russians out of what seems to be political torpor, he appealed to younger voters, amid fears that many will not vote. "You must not allow the country to be returned to the times when people were told how to dress, how to wear their hair and which songs to sing." And he appealed to the elderly, warning them against a return to the terror of the Soviet Union.
His speech coincided with attempts to curry up votes by the Kremlin, which will be alarmed by evidence that Our Home is lagging behind both the Communists and, in some areas, hard-line nationalists like Vladimir Zhirinovksy. Mr Zhirinovsky, who appears to have made some late gains, ended his campaign with a tirade against the West: "While you were chewing gum and eating Snickers bars, we were conquering space."
The government released figures showing that inflation this month was running at around 3 per cent, the lowest since economic reforms began. Rather more unconvincingly, the presidential envoy to Chechnya, Oleg Lobov, claimed that elections there were proceeding successfully, and that turnout was above the required 25 per cent threshold.
In Chechnya itself, where three days of voting began on Thursday, this appeared to be far from the case. Chechen fighters, who have vowed to disrupt the poll, seized control of the town of Urus-Martan, 20 miles south of Grozny, and fighting continued in the republic's second largest city, Gudermes, where at least 30 Russian soldiers have died, according to Russians on the scene.
As the landscape echoed with the din of tank shells and Grad missiles, Russians looked on in some bewilderment. One soldier surveying the chaos complained that the army was not allowed to use its full force. "And we, meantime, are cannon fodder."Reuse content