Former crusader now on defensive

Yeltsin Throws Crown in Ring For Reelection

IT was hardly a coincidence that Boris Yeltsin chose the Palace of Youth in his hometown of Yekaterinburg as the spot from which to announce yesterday that he will run for reelection as Russian president.

It was in the same place five years ago that a bold Mr. Yeltsin launched his first steamroller campaign, preaching a fresh vision of radical Western-style reform to a people stultified by 70 years of Communism.

Today a defensive, secretive Yeltsin is struggling to rekindle the old enthusiasm. But the future he offers to voters is a far cry from the brave New Jerusalem he proclaimed in 1991.

The man who once put almost blind faith in the West now stresses his view of Russian national interests. The candidate who used to castigate corrupt and intrigue-ridden Kremlin rulers has himself shrouded Russia's leadership in mystery. And the vigorous symbol of grass-roots opposition to the Communists, climbing onto a tank to defy hard-line coup plotters five years ago, has become a stiff president, increasingly removed from his people.

Today, as in 1991, Yeltsin's strongest challenge comes from the Communists. But whereas five years ago they were in shamed decline and he was riding a victorious wave of public popularity, now the roles are reversed. Gennady Zyuganov, chosen on Thursday as the Communists' presidential candidate for the June 16 vote, is leading the opinion polls, while Yeltsin is trailing a poor third.

The Russian president has suffered more than the normal wear-and-tear of high office in a period of dramatic and painful transformations.

His image, approach, advisers, and policies have all changed markedly since he swept to power at the head of a radical democratic movement that toppled the Communist Party and destroyed the Soviet Union.

Just how the populist hero atop a tank, facing down the Communists, became the heavy-handed scourge of Chechnya is a story with many twists and turns. But through all of them, the president has distanced himself ever further from the reforming crusaders whose standard-bearer he once was.

''In 1991 Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was a ram capable of crushing the Communist monopoly on power. Today he is the man who, wittingly or unwittingly, is paving the way for the Communists to come to power'' through his unpopular policies, comments Yegor Gaidar, architect of Russia's free market reforms and formerly a close ally of Yeltsin's.

While Mr. Gaidar and others have angrily accused the president of betraying his early ideals, other former members of his team are more understanding of Yeltsin's shift. ''It is a different country now'' than in 1991, argued Andrei Kozyrev, the pro-Western foreign minister until Yeltsin fired him last month. ''Thus there is a need for a much more mature strategy of consolidation of reform and consolidation of new structures.''

''In 1991, Yeltsin had a program of Westernization and marketization, and he used that program to come to power,'' added a Western diplomat. ''It turned out that the program was not politically sustainable, and Yeltsin the politician has adjusted to that.''

That adjustment has involved ditching all the reformers who once made up the Cabinet; striking an increasingly strident nationalist tone, especially over Chechnya; slowing the pace of privatization and allowing ministers to advocate renationalization; and offering budget-busting subsidies to industries in trouble, such as coal mining.

The president's fiercest critics, including his former press secretary Vyacheslav Kostikov, accuse him of slavishly doing anything necessary to stay in office. ''He is a man of power,'' Mr. Kostikov said in a recent television interview. ''Power is his ideology, his friend, his concubine, his mistress, his passion.''

Other former colleagues make a similar point, but less harshly. ''Never in his life did Yeltsin have strict ideological positions,'' said Yuri Afanasyev, an early leader of the democratic movement. ''He was always heavily influenced by the people closest to him, regardless of their political views.''

If five years ago the people closest to the president were democratically minded, open advisers, who sought to make decisionmaking understandable to ordinary Russians, today Yeltsin is surrounded by shadowy figures who rarely appear in public and whose counsel remains secret.

Worse, suggests the Western diplomat, ''in 1991, Yeltsin had people around him who would say no. Now he has developed this czar's aura, and people are afraid to give him bad news.''

Whether this will cloud Yeltsin's legendary political intuition as he charts his campaign course remains to be seen. But as was clear from his brief statement in Yekaterinburg on Thursday, he plans to present himself as a centrist bulwark against extremism.

''We have no right to repeat the same mistake that we made in 1917,'' when Communist revolutionaries overthrew the czar, Yeltsin said, in a direct swipe at his Communist rival for the presidency. ''We are voting not just for president but for Russia's destiny over the next 10 years.''

No other candidate, argue Yeltsin's backers, offers the same chances of stability.

''His leadership is an expression of the idea of social peace and civic accord that Russian needs so badly,'' said Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin recently. He has thrown his centrist Our Home Is Russia party behind Yeltsin's bid for reelection.

That requires ''certain personnel changes, some changes in the political line, and [an attempt] to come out in the role of a consolidating factor ... with the aim of preventing Russia from once again splitting itself into 'reds' and 'whites,' '' explains Andranik Migranian, a liberal presidential adviser who has remained loyal to Yeltsin.

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