In Russia's Race For President, a Rush to Regroup

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With the rock-ribbed and ramrod straight Alexander Lebed suddenly the most prominent figure in his administration, Boris Yeltsin enters the final week of the Russian presidential campaign far stronger than a week ago when he won the first round of the election.

After Mr. Yeltsin's purge of the most hard-line, antidemocratic, and antireform aides, Russian democrats are thrilled. He still lacks their unanimous votes, but his main democratic opposition, Grigory Yavlinsky and his Yabloko bloc, has warmed considerably. At the bloc's congress this weekend, members were split between endorsing Yeltsin outright, endorsing him with conditions, or advocating votes "against all" candidates.

To voters desperate for relief from crime and corruption, General Lebed - whose image is built on order and rectitude - showed that he was more than idle adornment. Yeltsin's team was transformed within two days of his arrival.

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"Yeltsin on his own would not have done it," says a Lebed voter waiting for a suburban train in Moscow, who says he will now switch to Yeltsin.

"Lebed is an honest man," says a recently retired Moscow accountant. "I think he will bring order to a certain extent, and he won't tolerate injustice even from the president." She is also switching her vote to Yeltsin.

Many of Lebed's 11 million voters still say they could never vote for Yeltsin, who has inspired a deep cynicism among many Russians. Galina Prisazhnyuk, who lives in the gang-ridden outer suburb of Lyubertsy, voted for Lebed and likes how he appears to have cleaned out the Kremlin last week. "It should have been done a long time ago," she says, but will skip voting next week rather than mark her ballot for Yeltsin.

Nikolai Yegeroyonok, a plumber, is unsure of how he will vote. He is also a Yeltsin skeptic, even though he likes what Lebed is doing: "So far, he's bringing order."

Still, the Yeltsin-Lebed combination is clearly positive for Yeltsin in next week's runoff vote, and the purged officials had no popular constituencies to alienate.

Yeltsin campaign officials figured last week that they would do well to win half the Lebed vote next week - but that close to half would be enough for them to beat their communist-nationalist opponent, Gennady Zyuganov.

Mr. Zyuganov is now trying to move toward the moderate center, downplaying his Communist Party base in favor of the broader "patriotic" coalition that supports him. Over the weekend, Zyuganov proposed to the Russian parliament that both he and Yeltsin meet with the parliamentarians to show they each intend to pursue democratic reforms in keeping with the Constitution.

The proposal gives Zyuganov a chance to say that he does not intend to roll back democracy itself or the political freedoms that Russians have already come to expect. It also would take the campaign to his stronghold. Both houses of parliament are controlled by moderate Communists.

Zyuganov needs to win most of the first-round Lebed voters as badly as Yeltsin does. He is counting on many of them feeling betrayed by Lebed for joining the Yeltsin team. He is drawing attention to the high profile last week of Anatoly Chubais, who Yeltsin fired last winter as his privatization chief and then re-hired as the mastermind of his campaign. Chubais is one of the most unpopular figures in Russia, especially in Zyuganov's constituency on the left.

Zyuganov also pointed to the sleazy circumstances and Kremlin intrigue surrounding Yeltsin's staff purge last week. Two campaign aides were arrested late Wednesday night leaving the White House, the seat of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's government. They were alleged by Mikhail Barsukov, head of the KGB-successor agency, the Federal Security Service, to have $500,000 in cash in a cardboard box.

It is still unclear whether the arrest was a ruse, and what the motive behind it was. It is further unclear why Barsukov, the chief of the presidential bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, and their ally the vice minister for industries Oleg Soskovets were fired in the aftermath.

Mr. Chernomyrdin said over the weekend that the arrested campaign officials were pressured to testify against him while being interrogated into the early hours of Thursday morning. Chubais on Thursday said the men were arrested to create a pretext for cancelling the elections.

Zyuganov hopes that voters will see the whole matter as more skulduggery among Yeltsin's cronies. Many of Zyuganov's committed voters, at least, do. "To me and to the economy, it is absolutely unimportant," says a middle-aged Zyuganov voter.

Other Zyuganovites are skeptical that Yeltsin's purged aides will stay purged once the election is over. "It will all go back after the election," says pensioner Natalya Andreyeva. "Lebed will be different. Everything will change."

That view, in fact, is shared by many sophisticated Moscow political observers, who foresee the loyal lieutenants returning to Yeltsin's side in different roles in coming months.

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