YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Russia's Historic Vote | NEWS ANALYSIS

Yeltsin Faces Tough Job if Reelected

Runoff: Victory would probably make incumbent freer than ever to rule Russia. Yet the burdens are weighty.


MOSCOW — Boris N. Yeltsin published two autobiographies in his first five years as president.

The first described his role as destroyer of Soviet communism and instigator of radical reform. The second, penned at the peak of a Communist backlash, ended with the sober lesson that Russians value "stability, firmness, consistency, conservatism . . . in our lives."

As Yeltsin prepares to write the next--and possibly last--chapter of his political career, his aides are tugging him in these two directions. Favored now to win reelection in a runoff against his Communist rival, which mission does he favor for a second term?

The 65-year-old leader vowed during the campaign to push his painful free-market reforms to completion. But if history and personality are any guide, he would not likely pursue reform at the expense of upheaval; rather, he would strive to keep Russia's ever-contentious forces in stable balance.

"Today, as never before, Russians must be united," Yeltsin declared in a televised address Monday after leading Sunday's first round of the election. He said the choice between him and Communist leader Gennady A. Zyuganov is "crystal clear . . . either backward to revolutions and shocks, or forward to stability and well-being."

Victory would make Yeltsin freer than ever to rule Russia as he likes. Yet the burdens he would face are weighty--a budget strained by lavish campaign promises, the specter of unemployment, pressure from regional leaders for autonomy from the Kremlin, a struggle over property still in state hands and, as if that weren't enough, his own weakened heart.

A battle over how to face these problems simmered during Yeltsin's four-month reelection campaign. At the advice of Kremlin conservatives, the president first tried to imitate his Communist rivals by firing reformers from the Cabinet and slowing his privatization program.

Then the reformers, under ousted Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly B. Chubais, got control of the campaign, and Yeltsin committed himself to their goals. Their strategy produced his dramatic comeback from a dismal 4% rating in the polls.

"The people influencing Yeltsin have changed completely over the past three months," Chubais said last week, predicting a Cabinet shake-up that would produce "deeper and more consistent reforms" in a second Yeltsin term.

But Viktor Ilyukhin, one of Yeltsin's two closest aides, said Monday that the president might also try to unite losing candidates of many stripes in an anti-Communist coalition--one that would not necessarily be more reformist.


The reform effort, which depends on keeping inflation low while selling off agricultural land and major state enterprises, already faces a number of obstacles.

Not the least is Yeltsin's estimated $6-billion bill for campaign promises, which he could pay at the cost of higher inflation or break at the cost of disillusionment and unrest among the millions of people impoverished by his reforms.

His hope to pay that bill with better tax collection--which is supposed to improve when uncertainty over the election ends--has been undermined by another kind of campaign debt: To win support in the heartland, Yeltsin signed deals allowing 10 of Russia's 89 constituent parts to keep a bigger share of their revenues.

Some favored regions, including Yeltsin's native Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains and Primorsky on the east coast, came through with big pro-Yeltsin pluralities. Others, including Tatarstan, went heavily for Zyuganov and would face pressure from a reelected Yeltsin to relinquish some of their autonomy.

Yeltsin's own bureaucracy is resisting demands from reformers and acquisitive private conglomerates that it sell off the richest remaining state-run fiefdoms--oil, gas, telecommunications and railroads--and that it force hundreds of debt-ridden Soviet-era factories into bankruptcy.

Similar battles are shaping up within Yeltsin's administration over two of his campaign promises--one to allow members of Soviet-era collective farms to sell their land, the other to create a costly, all-volunteer army and eliminate military conscription by 2000.

Liliya F. Shevtsova, a leading political scientist here, said these conflicts between Moscow and the regions, between bureaucrats and reformers, are just as serious and potentially destabilizing as the one just fought at the polls between Communists and democrats.

And, she added, they explain why Yeltsin will probably never again turn over the economy exclusively to Western-schooled specialists like Yegor T. Gaidar, whose radical reforms in 1992 cost the president so much popularity.

"For Yeltsin, the key to survival is never to rely on only one group; otherwise all other groups unite against you," Shevtsova said.


That sounds like a formula for more of the same erratic reforms of the last few years. But to many here and in the West, it is the best anyone can expect in a deeply polarized country undergoing such wrenching changes.

Los Angeles Times Articles