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Reality Rains on Communists' Traditional May Day Festivities

Politics: Undecided voters, newly affluent skip annual workers' celebrations.


MOSCOW — If Wednesday's dampened celebrations of May Day can be regarded as a straw poll of voters ahead of the June presidential election, the forces for democracy can breathe a sigh of relief.

Rallies to note the traditionally Communist workers' holiday drew relatively small and docile crowds, in contrast with the hordes of angry anti-reform demonstrators that had been predicted.

Even many of those who braved rain to march under the red flags and banners of the Soviet Union seemed more intent on expressing their disenchantment with post-Cold War Russia than a deep conviction to change it.

When Communist presidential hopeful Gennady A. Zyuganov urged his followers to restore the once-omnipotent party to power, the 8,000 or so people gathered around one of the last statues of Karl Marx in Moscow offered polite applause, then drifted off an hour before the rally was to have ended.

Meanwhile, just a few blocks away at an equally soggy Tverskaya Square, incumbent President Boris N. Yeltsin stumped through the traditional public promenade in which hundreds of thousands dance and stroll each year in a May Day street party.

"Long live the spring of changes Russia has embarked on after long years of lethargy and stagnation!" a buoyant Yeltsin boomed to a crowd of trade unionists.

Helicopters thumped overhead, and tens of thousands of extra police and security troops were deployed to keep an eye out for scuffles or provocations by Chechen rebels who have vowed revenge against Russia for last week's killing of their leader, Gen. Dzhokar M. Dudayev.

But as Yeltsin and Zyuganov vied for the attention of the mostly elderly May Day revelers, the biggest and most influential crowd of Muscovites--the undecideds--was not in sight.

Gorky Park, the botanical gardens, the Tretyakov Gallery and other popular venues were thronged with families out for apolitical indulgences on the first of four days off. Museums, cinemas and public transport were free for the holiday by edict of the Moscow government, and millions took advantage of the offer despite uncooperative weather.

Dressed in their Sunday best for the day also celebrated as the onset of spring, those ignoring the political posturing appeared considerably more prosperous than the nostalgic pensioners drawn to Zyuganov or to the street scene visited by Yeltsin.

"I don't want to think about the elections today. This is a chance to catch my breath and spend time with my son," said Yelena Bondareva, a young advertising agency worker towing 5-year-old Yuri and his yellow balloon back from Gorky Park.

That was also the prevailing sentiment among the hordes who fled Moscow to spend the four-day holiday at country homes. Tuesday, a veritable exodus began of private cars laden with suitcases, friends and relatives--a parade of the economically stable and politically unenthused.

Even the struggling elderly who constituted most of the audiences for Zyuganov and Yeltsin were not uniformly fervent supporters.

"I haven't decided who I am going to vote for yet," said Valentin Kirikovsky, a 64-year-old subway worker who had come to hear Zyuganov. "I wanted to vote for [Gen. Alexander I.] Lebed, but I don't think he has a chance to win."

Lebed, a retired general running on a law-and-order platform, is one of eight other candidates who qualified for the ballot but trail Zyuganov and Yeltsin in the polls.

Public opinion polls have been erratic in their predictions about the first round of the presidential election on June 16. While one respected pollster last week showed Yeltsin leading Zyuganov for the first time, with both candidates each polling about 20% support each, another agency claimed that its more extensive survey showed Zyuganov taking as much as 47% in the first-round vote--more than double the support it said it had found for Yeltsin.

The biggest pool of voters, though, remains the 40% or more who are undecided, and political analysts believe this will make the election a cliffhanger.

Yeltsin has been casting himself as the more stable option of the two front-runners and has warned that Zyuganov would wreck what progress has been made toward a market economy.


The 65-year-old incumbent has also tried to look robust and presidential with an ambitious travel and campaigning schedule in recent weeks. On May Day, he stood in driving rain without an umbrella--aides said he accidentally left it at home--to address the union rally in the morning. In the same drenched clothes, he went to a scenic overlook where he shopped for handicrafts and danced with a young woman in Cossack folk costume.

Zyuganov has sought to allay fears of a retreat to Soviet-era shortages and repressions, but has struck a chord with many of those disillusioned with the reform course by suggesting the country could return to its Communist past and reclaim its former superpower glory.

"The reforms have thrown Russia back by three or four centuries in terms of our territory, and back to the 1960s or even 1950s in terms of our living standards," Zyuganov told a rally outside the Bolshoi Theater.

The polarized candidacies have spurred warnings of unrest, with the fear being that the side that loses may refuse to let the winners take power in peace. Those concerns prompted prominent bankers and oil executives last week to call for a "compromise" to avert civil war.

Zyuganov met with the business people Tuesday to assure them he has no plans to re-create Soviet-era state monopolies. But continued talk by senior Communist Party lieutenants of property confiscations and restoring alliances with newly independent states of the former Soviet Union has left many observers wary.

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