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Documentary : On the Stump : Boris Yeltsin's strategy to win Sunday's crucial referendum is puzzling. What he needs to do--and can't seem to do--is openly ask for voters' support at the ballot box.


ABASHEVSKAYA COAL MINE, Russia — The old woman, filled with rage, battled her way through a tightly packed crowd of sweaty, soot-dusted workers to within hailing distance of the hulking VIP from Moscow.

It was her chance to give Boris N. Yeltsin a piece of her mind, and she meant to seize it.

"Boris Nikolayevich!" the woman, in her 60s, yelled before the Russian president could clamber back into his shiny limousine. "Do you think it's easy to live on a pension of 6,000 rubles ($7.85 a month)?"

Yeltsin, flanked by bodyguards at the door of his Zil, paused and turned to face the gold-toothed, wrinkled woman. What had he heard?

The Siberian babushka repeated herself for good measure and then added a verbal blast about Russia's mushrooming problems with organized and violent crime. What, she demanded, had Yeltsin done to their country?

He had no ready answer.

"Don't vote," Yeltsin finally volunteered. "It's your right."

Boris Nikolayevich, wait a minute, I thought as I stood so close I could see the pouches of fatigue under his eyes.

You're supposed to be canvassing all Russia for votes because your political career is in a sling, I thought, and this is how you campaign?

Apparently it is.

And if his lackluster performance and tepid reception in Siberia's Kuzbass, Russia's paramount coal-mining region and a former citadel of pro-Yeltsin sentiment, are any sign, he had better not count on winning this Sunday's national referendum.

Yeltsin said during his visit that he knows he's no shoo-in, which makes his vote-winning strategy doubly strange. To borrow a leaf from another successful campaigner's notebook, his sole message should now be, "It's the referendum, stupid!"

But that slogan, which could be the difference between political survival and doom for Yeltsin, was drowned out as the president threw himself scattershot into discussions about coal production, steel mill reconstruction, health care and local administrative matters.

And the most bizarre of all was that yesterday's populist underdog couldn't bring himself to openly ask for Russians' support at the ballot box.

"The president thinks the time for rallies is behind us. He thinks it's time for creative work," said Alexander B. Orfyonov of the presidential press service, who accompanied Yeltsin.

Those priorities seemed at times political folly.

For instance, hundreds of miners, some straight from their shifts deep underground, waited outside the Abashevskaya mine's administrative building while Yeltsin, like an old-time Communist Party leader, jawed about mining affairs with management and labor leaders inside. When he appeared outside, a ripple of enthusiasm floated over the crowd that had been waiting in the sun. But did he exploit it?

"I have a packed schedule," Yeltsin said apologetically, and then made for his limo.

The great writer Nikolai Gogol once said Russia suffered from two evils: fools and bad roads. He would easily have understood the problems facing journalists who flew four time zones east of Moscow to Novokuznetsk, a no-nonsense, homely city of bleak boulevards, smoking factory chimneys and ramshackle high-rises, to see if Yeltsin still could work his old magic on Russian crowds.

With media organizations from around the world urgently wanting to know what Yeltsin was up to, his advance man for press operations vanished from his fifth-floor hotel room on the eve of Yeltsin's arrival and wasn't to be found until the next morning.

Frantic correspondents lined up outside his door to get the pieces of paper that would allow them to get close to Yeltsin. But in a typical Russian ending, everybody was allowed to attend the same few events anyway, whether they got the coveted card or not, and other happenings, including Yeltsin's meeting with pensioners--a key and very discontented voting bloc--were held in such close quarters that most reporters were kept out.

The itinerary seemed to have been planned with no focus on Yeltsin's do-or-die need to win a majority this Sunday. For example, he took a generous slice of time to visit Novokuznetsk's best maternity hospital. (Why? Can babies vote?) And if it was supposed to be a photo opportunity, why were all journalists except a TV crew kept out?

Yeltsin's enemies were better organized. Outside the headquarters of a metal works where Yeltsin met in the early evening with municipal officials, a few dozen people gathered carrying posters with slogans like "The Motherland will not forgive traitors!"

A crude, anti-Semitic leaflet in purple ink was passed out that read, "When Jews are in power, Russia is at the brink."

"His name isn't really Yeltsin, but Yeltzer," a middle-age woman beside me confided.

"Lay him on the railroad tracks!" voices shouted. "Hang him by the neck!"

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