The stage is big: the far-flung but incohesive state of Russia itself. The audience is skeptical: Russian voters, sullen and angry at their perennial economic suffering. And the challenge for President Boris Yeltsin as he stumps the massive country for their support in a crucial April 25 referendum on his leadership is to convince those voters that he is still the agent of peace and prosperity. To carry out his crusade for Western-style free market and democratic reforms, the Russian president has discovered Westernstyle campaign tactics—dispensing financial favors. In recent weeks, he has rolled back a planned increase in the retail price of gasoline, frozen rents in state-owned apartments in Moscow and other big cities, nearly doubled the minimum wage and promised greater subsidies for university students.
Yeltsin has also taken to the road to sell his reform program. “There are instances in history when the fate of this or that country is sealed in the capital,” declared Yeltsin supporter Yelena Bonner, the widow of Russian activist Andrei Sakharov. “But today the fate of the country and all of its people will be settled, not in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in Russia’s wide expanses.” That belief is echoed by public opinion polls, which show that about 60 per cent of Moscow residents intend to support Yeltsin in next week’s referendum. But there are 100 million other voters scattered across the country—and they appear to be more concerned about pocket-book issues than Kremlin power struggles. Last week, Yeltsin took his campaign to the vast coal-mining fields of the Kuznetsky Basin in central Siberia. Miners there have traditionally been among his staunchest supporters and have enjoyed wages well above the national average. But falling living standards have severely strained their loyalty. As he has done throughout the campaign, Yeltsin promised to improve living conditions that have been eroded by an inflation rate that exceeded 2,000 per cent last year. “If the people show trust in us, we will carry out a firmer reform policy,” he said.
“Our political squabbling at the highest level is a crime and should be stopped.”
Yeltsin has managed to win the trust—and financial backing—of at least some supporters who could help secure his position as the key figure in Russia’s advance towards democracy and market reform. In Tokyo last week, representatives from Canada and the other mem-
bers of the Group of Seven industrialized countries unveiled a $54-billion rescue package to bolster Russia’s economy. And leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose alliance of former Soviet republics, endorsed Yeltsin at the end of a one-day meeting in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The leaders expressed fears that a victory by Yeltsin’s conservative opponents, led by parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, could lead to an attempt to re-establish the old Soviet Union. Declared Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk: “If somebody takes this road, it will be watered with lots of blood.”
Meanwhile, there were signs that as Russian voters weigh their choices, the country was sliding even further into chaos. Khasbulatov said that the Russian parliament would never ratify the START-2 nuclear disarmament treaty, signed in January by Yeltsin and then-U.S. President George Bush, as long as Foreign
Minister Andrei Kozyrev remained in office. Conservatives accuse Kozyrev of being proWestern. And defiant Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi refused to step down even though Yeltsin stripped him of his authority over agriculture and curbed his Kremlin privileges. In an 80-minute address carried live on national television, Rutskoi said Yeltsin’s reforms were eroding Russian living standards and causing a surge in crime. He also called for an investigation into corruption in Yeltsin’s administration.
But there are no guarantees that a Yeltsin victory in the referendum will provide a final solution to the power struggle that has gripped Russia for more than a year. During that period, Yeltsin’s government has been locked in a battle for political supremacy with Khasbulatov’s conservative-dominated legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies. Indeed, the two sides cannot even agree
on how to measure victory on April 25.
In establishing guidelines for the referendum, members of the congress insisted that Yeltsin must receive approval from a majority of Russia’s 106 million registered voters. But Yeltsin has refused to accept that condition, arguing that he only needs the support of just over half of the voters who actually turn out. And with three other questions on the ballotvoters will also be asked if they approve of Yeltsin’s controversial economic policies and if they want early presidential and legislative elections—the referendum results are almost certain to be inconclusive. Anticipating just such an outcome, Khasbulatov declared last week that it would be up to deputies alone to interpret the results. For Russians exasperated with the gridlock, the prospects for a breakthrough seemed as muddy as a Russian spring.
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