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Yeltsin Launches Populist Campaign in Russia's Elections

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times

In a hoarse voice that bespoke fragile health, President Boris N. Yeltsin launched a populist campaign for re-election Thursday with attacks on Russia's "suffocating" Soviet past, part of its new capitalist elite and even corrupt officials in his own administration.

Russia's first popularly elected leader declared that his mission to create a democratic, free-market society is incomplete and could be destroyed if Communist rivals "bound by dogmas that life has rejected" come to power in the June elections.

"To stand on the threshold of a civilized life, the civilized life of the world - and to roll back - this will be our common defeat and disgrace," Yeltsin said in a nationally televised speech. "In this situation, can I afford not to take part in the elections?

"I must bring to a successful end the cause to which I have devoted my whole self," he added. "I am sure I can bring the country through troubled times, anxiety and uncertainty."

As Yeltsin spoke in Yekaterinburg, his home city in the Ural Mountains, delegates of Russia's resurgent Communist Party gathered in Moscow to nominate their boss, Gennady A. Zyuganov, for president on the June 16 ballot.

While Zyuganov gave a cautious address calling for greater state control of the economy, Yeltsin was more aggressive, asserting that a Communist victory would bring famine, Soviet-style dictatorship and civil war. "We must do everything possible so that we Russians, and our country, do not perish under the red wheel of the past," he said.

The two speeches marked the start of a four-month race that many believed the 65-year-old president was too ill and too unpopular to enter. Hurt by economic hardship at home and war in secessionist Chechnya, he was bedridden four months last year by two bouts of heart disease and trails Zyuganov, the front-runner, and several other candidates in the crowded field.

Some Russians recall Yeltsin's declaration in 1992 that the "burden" of transforming Russia "is too heavy" to allow him a second term. Thursday he looked tired after a wintry day of campaigning that plunged him into crowds at three subway stations and left him rasping.

Rambling and incoherent at times during his hourlong speech, Yeltsin ticked off some achievements of his five years in office: political and press freedoms, a modern market and trade infrastructure, $13 billion in reserves in a once-empty treasury, progress in taming the inflation he unleashed.

But he admitted that mistakes in his conduct of economic reforms, which have made most Russians worse off than they were under Soviet rule, have caused "deep scars on my heart."

"I spend sleepless nights analyzing what we have done," he said. "Every time, I feel convinced we have taken the correct path." But he added that the free market cannot be pursued at all costs and promised steps to balance social inequalities.

Yeltsin attacked Russian capitalists who bleed their companies' assets, fail to pay their workers on time and take vacations "on Cyprus or on Corfu." He said: "The president cannot afford (such vacations). But the planes are chock-full of such people flying them from Russia abroad."

Turning to the governor of the region where he spoke, Yeltsin said the director of an unnamed local company who earns $6,500 a month "should be immediately fired," even though the company is in private hands. The president announced a decree requiring all companies to pay at least 20 percent of their earnings in wages.

In his most sweeping campaign promise, Yeltsin said he would find enough money to pay the state's entire bill in overdue wages - $2.75 billion owed to soldiers, teachers, scientists and other public employees who are routinely paid months late. He said the back wages will be paid by March and never be a problem afterward.

Yeltsin did not say where he would find the money but promised that wages will not be paid in "wooden rubles," slang here for deficit spending that only drives up prices. Some government economists are skeptical that the Kremlin has such reserves.

While Communists and other opposition groups focus their campaigns on the widening gap between Russia's rich and poor, Yeltsin's aides believe that the biggest obstacle to his re-election is widespread outrage over official corruption.

Yeltsin admitted Thursday that the reformist rhetoric of "tough financial policy" is often "used to cover up numerous financial shams and abuses." He promised a crackdown on hundreds of officials.