DURING his campaign for president, Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Federation's populist leader, is concentrating on building potential post-election political alliances rather than pressing the flesh. Russia, the Soviet Union's largest and richest republic, will hold its first-ever popular presidential vote June 12. Mr. Yeltsin is heavily favored to defeat such opponents as former Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and former Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin. The Russian leader's real challenge appears to be paving the way for market-style reforms.
Setting the tone for his presidential run, Yeltsin refused to classify his trip to the Arctic port of Murmansk last week as a campaign stop, instead calling it a "working visit." He spent most of the day wooing local bureaucrats and the military - two groups that up to now have shown only lukewarm support for his program. Many entrenched Communist Party bureaucrats are supporting Mr. Ryzhkov, who is running a distant second in opinion polls.
"He [Yeltsin] is already assured of the workers' votes. His main task is to gain the support of the regional leaders, so his programs will be a success after he becomes president," said Vladimir Shugashin, a journalist with the daily Vecherny Murmansk.
Yeltsin promises freedoms
To score political points with managers, Yeltsin is offering to decentralize decisionmaking authority. Starting in Murmansk, he signed an agreement with regional officials designed to spur growth, promising among other things to grant greater economic control to local factories. Similar documents were signed at subsequent campaign stops in the northern city of Petrozavodsk, and in Voronezh, about 350 miles south of Moscow.
"The most important thing is to give you greater freedom to decide for yourselves," he stressed repeatedly in Murmansk. "In general, the only relations with Moscow will be through taxes."
Murmansk, a city of about 500,000, was destroyed during World War II. It is now mostly a collection of depressing gray, prefab apartment blocks nestled among barren hills along the Kola River. Though stores are relatively well-stocked, the climate makes life difficult. There is sunlight 24 hours a day during the summer, but in winter the sun doesn't rise above the horizon for more than two months. In late May, the grass was brown and there were no buds on the trees. Residents say it is not uncommon for s
now to fall in June.
Amid the bleakness, Yeltsin's message offers a ray of hope, some local officials said. As the only permanently ice-free port in the Soviet Arctic, Murmansk figures to be a key conduit for imports and exports as Russia starts trying to integrate into the European economy. The area, about 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle, is rich in mineral and fish resources, and gas deposits were recently discovered in the region.
"The north has great potential. This agreement creates the possibility for us to achieve that potential," said Gennady Luzin, director of the Murmansk region's Institute for Economic Problems.
Yeltsin also has taken care to cultivate another important constituency - the military. He made a special trip to the naval base at Severomorsk, about 35 miles north of Murmansk, to discuss matters of interest to officers, such as better housing conditions. And at several campaign stops, including the military center of Tula, south of Moscow, he emphasized he had no intention of creating Russia's own army, an idea that many officers oppose.
"We have to do all we can to defend the interests of the military. Their interests currently aren't protected at all," said Yeltsin, adding he would make sure the military would never be used against the civilian population in Russia.
On occasion, he also has championed environmental causes, promising to stop nuclear tests on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, as well as pay more attention to acid rain and cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Populist image endures
Although putting the emphasis on alliance building, Yeltsin at the same time kept to his populist image. For example, in Murmansk, the husky Siberian, looking rested and wearing a well-tailored suit, traveled in a blue-and-white minivan crowded with advisers, foregoing the ostentatious entourage of limousines.
When he appeared in public, Yeltsin was mobbed by well-wishers, some wanting to shake his hand, or give him flowers, while others repeatedly chanted his name. Yeltsin returned the affection, often clasping his hands over his head in a sign of solidarity. The scenes served as a reminder that to many Yeltsin is more like a savior than a mere presidential candidate.
"This will be one of the most memorable days of my life," said Murmansk pensioner Maria Bezunova, after seeing Yeltsin during a visit to a fish-processing factory.
"It's tougher living here under perestroika [restructuring] than it was right after the war," she continued, referring to World War II. "Only Yeltsin can improve our lives."
Economy pushes Yeltsin
Such lofty expectations in his ability to pull the Soviet Union out of its downward economic spiral should put great pressure on Yeltsin to produce quick results after his likely election win. That, in turn, is causing him to make the deals needed to prevent pre-vote fervor from turning into post-election despair, said leaders of Democratic Russia, the reform-minded movement that forms the core of Yeltsin's support.
"We have to solve a whole series of problems quickly," said Democratic Russia leader Viktor Sheinis. "Time now isn't measured in years or months, but in weeks."
Yeltsin can afford to look ahead, instead of focusing on the present, partially because other candidates are having a hard time generating much interest in their campaigns.
For example, Ryzhkov, Yeltsin's top challenger, at a recent Moscow appearance spent as much time defending his policies while he was prime minister as outlining his vision for the future. Mr. Bakatin has been busy, but with less than two weeks remaining in the campaign, probably cannot become a serious threat.
But radical reformers are taking nothing for granted, working hard to make sure Yeltsin wins the required 50 percent of the vote June 12 to prevent a runoff election.
On Saturday, Democratic Russia leaders discussed ways to build further support for their candidate. Meanwhile, Yeltsin met with Russian Orthodox Church leader Alexei II and prepared to make his second extended campaign tour throughout the industrial heartland of the Ural mountains.
"There is always the danger of a second round [of elections]," Mr. Sheinis said. "No one needs a long election process during such a critical time. If it's extended, no one can tell what will happen."