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Early Race Bodes Ill for Yeltsin Party : Russia: By wide margin, voters oust Kremlin-backed governor in president's home district. That casts doubt on ailing leader's prospects for reelection in June.

August 23, 1995|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russia's long election season got off to an ominous start for President Boris N. Yeltsin's new centrist party when voters in his home district ousted the Kremlin-backed incumbent governor by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, according to complete returns Tuesday.

Sunday's race was the first test of the new party, Our Home Is Russia, since Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin formed it in April on Yeltsin's instructions and built it into a well-financed club of the ruling elite.

Yeltsin, ailing and unpopular these days, is counting on Chernomyrdin to lead the party to a sufficiently strong showing against Communists, nationalists and reform democrats in the Dec. 17 parliamentary elections to give him a shot at reelection in the presidential race next June.

But the final tally in the Ural Mountains district of Sverdlovsk indicated that voters are tired of incumbents.

Eduard E. Rossel, fired by Yeltsin as governor in 1993, ran his campaign more against Our Home than against his opponent, Gov. Alexei L. Strakhov, and won 60% of the vote. Strakhov, district party chief of Our Home, polled 32% after outspending his challenger 4 to 1.

"Our Home suffered a very serious defeat," Vitaly V. Mashkov, Yeltsin's personal representative in the district, said in a telephone interview. "Unless serious measures are taken to change its tactics, defeat in December may become a certainty."

Our Home is the second party of Russia's post-Communist era to face election as the Establishment. Yeltsin dumped his old allies among reform democrats after their poor showing in the 1993 parliamentary vote and moved to the center--a ground occupied by ex-Communist apparatchiks like himself.

Strakhov, a 53-year-old veteran of the Communist food supply system who had never before run for public office, personifies an important weakness the party faces in many districts. A stiff, reluctant candidate, he limited his campaign to slick television commercials and recorded addresses, rejecting advice by younger party aides from Moscow to mix with crowds and reach out to voters.

That made him a dubious salesman for a dubious party line--that only the powers that be can offer stability.

Some political analysts predicted that governors and mayors across Russia--the backbone of Our Home--will look at the returns in Sverdlovsk and back away from the movement or refuse to join. "The result shows that you cannot just run as the party of power," said Michael McFaul, a Moscow political analyst for the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Nobody wants to vote for the status quo."

Chernomyrdin suggested Tuesday that Our Home might have backed the wrong man. "The people of Sverdlovsk elected the person they need," he told reporters on a tour of Siberia. "His program might have appeared more attractive. That is what we must take into account when we work with people."

Other Yeltsin supporters said they want to reach out to the new governor and his voters in the December national election but may have a problem: The defeated governor insists on remaining district party chief.

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Rossel, the 59-year-old governor-elect, is a former Communist construction boss. He was appointed district chief executive by Yeltsin and fired in 1993 for proclaiming Sverdlovsk, the president's former power base, an autonomous "Urals Republic." Rossel made a comeback as the elected chairman of Sverdlovsk's Parliament.

His populist campaign theme was not only anti-incumbent but pro-Sverdlovsk; while dropping his radical drive for autonomy, the "Father of the Urals Republic" called for negotiations with Moscow to gain greater local control over the district's mineral wealth.

Other than the stigma of incumbency for Our Home, party affiliation meant little to the district's 3 million voters. In the first round of voting, on Aug. 6, a deputy governor with no party tag finished third, behind Rossel and Strakhov, and a Communist finished fourth.

But Our Home faces strong ideological challenges in December from the Communists and their Agrarian Party allies, from Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky's ultranationalists and from reform democrats led by Grigory A. Yavlinsky. Also, several parties are vying with Our Home for the middle ground--including a new one led by former Yeltsin aide Yuri V. Skokov and a popular retired army general, Alexander I. Lebed.

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