MOSCOW — Prime-time television viewers across Russia got a rare perspective on their gruff, no-nonsense leader the other evening. Naina Yeltsin, a shy woman who shuns publicity, was on the air, describing her husband as a soft-hearted man who never quarrels with her or utters swear words.
The hourlong film, "A Day in the Life of the President's Family," was the main act so far in Boris N. Yeltsin's propaganda show for Sunday's referendum, in which he is seeking a vote of confidence to stay on as president and continue his free-market reforms.
But when Yeltsin's most popular critic, Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, demanded the same air time Friday night, Russian Television turned him down, saying that it was too late to reshuffle its scheduled programming.
Rutskoi then tried to make his anti-Yeltsin speech during time that his party had already bought on Moscow's municipal channel but was rebuffed again.
Nearly two years after Yeltsin became Russia's first democratically elected leader, and 16 months after the Soviet Union collapsed, television is still a monopoly owned by the Kremlin. In the run-up to Sunday's vote, it has proven to be Yeltsin's most powerful weapon.
Slick TV spots show various groups--old, young, workers, intellectuals, children and celebrities--repeating the jingle \o7 "Da, Da, Nyet, Da" \f7 (Yes, Yes, No, Yes)--the way Yeltsin's supporters want people to vote on the four referendum questions.
TV newscasts air nightly footage of the silver-haired president explaining his case to supporters, visiting factories, verbally sparring with conservative industrialists, attending Easter religious services. Opponents like Rutskoi and Parliament Speaker Ruslan I. Khasbulatov are shown too, but not as much.
"Explain to me please," asked a frustrated Rutskoi, "how does today's democracy differ from a totalitarian system? . . . The press is no different now from what it was in 1990 or 1985."
That's clearly an exaggeration. Khasbulatov's Parliament often exercises its right to order up live telecasts of its Yeltsin-bashing sessions.
On Friday, the largest anti-Yeltsin rally of the campaign, a "March of Outraged People" by 10,000 supporters of the National Salvation Front, got prominent coverage on TV news, a day after the Front's leader accused the mass media of "unprecedented psychological pressure" on voters.
"Our political broadcasts are mainly in the form of debates in which every side has the chance to express its opinion," says Vyacheslav Bragin, who heads the Ostankino television company.
Yet there is little dispute here that, under Yeltsin appointees like Bragin, the overall slant of political coverage on TV has tilted increasingly toward the president as his popularity has slumped.
Television is the only truly national news medium and Russians' chief source of information. In a country with more television sets than households, both Ostankino and Russian Television reach viewers in all 11 time zones, including many who cannot lay their hands on newspapers.
The Rev. Gleb P. Yakunin, a Yeltsin ally in Parliament, says television "is more important to him now than the army."
As his battle with lawmakers escalated late last year, the president fired Bragin's more independent predecessor at Ostankino and set up a Federal Information Service to create propaganda for the airwaves. Parliament struck back last month, at the start of the referendum campaign, by passing a law to abolish the new agency and put state-owned television under legislative control.
But Yeltsin challenged the law as unconstitutional and refused to comply. And Parliament's move to set up the commission that would oversee broadcast media has stalled amid squabbling among rival opposition factions seeking to dominate it.
Early this month, Yeltsin met with television directors and sympathetic newspaper editors to discuss the referendum and solicit advice on strategy.
"For 20 minutes, they gave him pointers on how to manipulate the media they control," said Igor Malashenko, the former head of Ostankino TV. "It was just like the old days under communism, only this meeting was aired live on TV. It was bizarre!"
Anti-government forces have produced no television of their own, claiming that air time is too expensive. Instead, they have focused their campaign on denunciations through the news media, including television, of alleged corruption by Yeltsin's defense minister and other top aides.
Yeltsin's foes have prevailed so far in the most intense battle for control of local airwaves, a fight over Alexander Nevzorov's 10-minute news program, "600 Seconds," in St. Petersburg.
The controversial anchorman was barred from the government-run local station last month after calling Yeltsin a fascist and urging citizens to form "battalions" to oppose him. For two weeks, thousands of Nevzorov's supporters staged daily demonstrations outside the studios in the name of freedom of the press, barricading the street with chunks of concrete curb.
Eventually, the police warned that they could no longer keep order and the Security Ministry ruled that Nevzorov had broken no laws. His daily program was reinstated April 7 and is now a prominent platform for advocating a "no" vote against Yeltsin.
"Both sides in this struggle know that their success or failure (in the referendum) depends greatly on the mass media," said Vitaly Tretyakov of the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta in Moscow. "Neither Yeltsin nor the Parliament cares much about press freedom. They just use it as a slogan to achieve political goals."