Presidential Race Looms Over Russia's May Day

Heavy clouds and sporadic rain dampened spirits at a Communist May Day rally here yesterday. But demonstrators said they had no doubt that their candidate, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, would win this June's presidential election.

Gathered under umbrellas and sodden red flags in front of a statue of Karl Marx in central Moscow, Communist supporters listened to Mr. Zyuganov deliver a stock speech before the loudspeakers struck up the Internationale. A few lackluster chants of "Lenin, Motherland, Soviet Union" were as much crowd response as they could manage.

But it would be a mistake to judge Zyuganov's nationwide strength by the small, bedraggled crowd he drew yesterday. A new opinion poll released Tuesday suggested that he could win from 38 to 47 percent of the votes June 16, more than double President Boris Yeltsin's 16 to 20 percent.

Mr. Yeltsin, who gathered several thousand trade union supporters for a May Day rally of his own in Moscow, is clearly facing an uphill struggle as the election approaches. The quickening pace of his campaign suggests that he is no longer as confident of victory as he was earlier this year.

Yeltsin has been warning voters that a Zyuganov presidency would drag Russia back to the Soviet era, undoing the free market and democratic reforms that he has carried out. Zyuganov, on the other hand, went out of his way yesterday to present a moderate image, repeating his pledges not to launch wholesale renationalizations.

His promises, though, do not convince everybody in a country where the Communists are the most familiar political force to most people. "We know from experience that they say one thing and do something else," says Natalya Sheptukhovskaya, an engineer who said she would not be voting for Zyuganov, as she waited for a train at Leningradsky Station.

A Communist victory "would be too horrible to think about - it would mean the total robbery of the country," she predicted.

Zyuganov's fierce attacks on corruption and the "get-rich-quick" mentality that have overtaken the new Russia, however, strike a responsive chord among the electorate The Communist leader has made this issue a keynote of his campaign.

"Most [privatized] property was improperly given away," says Karen Benyaminov, an Armenian-born trader from the northern town of Pskov. "It should go back to the state."

The sight of a small minority with criminal or government connections enjoying spectacular wealth, while so many Russians are worse off than they were under Communism, has rallied millions to Zyuganov's cause. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, especially for the older people who make up the bulk of the Communist electorate.

By voting for Zyuganov in June, "I hope for freedom, for socialism, and for people's power," says Vyacheslav Rileyev, a retired Army officer attending the Communist rally. "Freedom is when you can be sure of your future, and nowadays nobody knows about tomorrow."

Yeltsin, meanwhile, called for unity among the democratic forces yesterday. "Only by joining forces can we unite the nation, overcome the longstanding division of Russian society," he said in his speech.

His remarks seemed aimed at Grigory Yavlinsky, a reformist presidential candidate, who is discussing an electoral alliance with Alexander Lebed, a gruff former general who enjoys wide personal popularity, and prominent eye surgeon Svyatoslav Fyodorov.

The three leaders have said they will choose a common candidate, who is expected to be Mr. Yavlinsky, by mid-May. That announcement has sparked the wrath of Anatoly Chubais, one of Yeltsin's top campaign managers, who this week called on Yavlinsky to withdraw from the race and join the president's team.

"It is absolutely clear that Grigory Yavlinsky will not become the Russian president in 1996," he told the Interfax news agency. His only impact on the election, Mr. Chubais said, would be to split the Yeltsin vote.

Tuesday's opinion poll putting Zyuganov well ahead of Yeltsin, released by the independent Moscow-based Institute for the Sociology of Parliamentarism (ISP), was unusual. It came in the wake of a crop of polls suggesting that the president is now running neck and neck with his Communist challenger. But other Russian opinion polls have historically proved misleading, while the ISP has a track record of accuracy.

Nonetheless, even the ISP poll does not give Zyuganov the absolute majority he would need in order to win the first round of the elections on June 16. In the second round three weeks later, Yeltsin is expected to pick up all the anti-Communist vote.

"Zyuganov has a larger core, but Yeltsin has the bigger potential," says one Western diplomat. "The question is whether he can fully mobilize that potential."

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