YELTSIN'S LAST RACE
FEBRUARY 14, 1996
Boris Yeltsin is expected to announce his candidacy for president of Russia on Thursday. Elections are expected in June. Special Correspondent Simon Marks previews the campaign.
SIMON MARKS: He was swept to power five years ago, riding a tide of national fervor. Boris Yeltsin, the man who turned his back on the Communist Party, seemed to hold the whole of Russia in the palm of his hand as the Soviet Union collapsed.
CROWD: (shouting) Yeltsin! Yeltsin!
SIMON MARKS: He was sprightly, energetic, and offered hope for the future. The Russian people flocked to support him in response. Today, at the age of 65, he's unwell and unpopular, rarely venturing beyond the walls of the Kremlin to make the public appearances that were once his trademark. But now he's preparing for one more bruising political campaign, gearing up for Russia's presidential elections in June. One of his closest aides, Georgy Satarov, says the president has decided to run for reelection because he perceives himself to be the only guarantor of Russia's democratic change after the Communist Party's victory in December's parliamentary elections.
GEORGY SATAROV, Yeltsin Aide: (speaking through interpreter) He's thought about this for a long time, and it came down to the fact that his final decision would depend on the results of the parliamentary elections. The greater the threat to the creation of a democratic society and a market-based economy, the more likely it would be his decision to enter the fight for the presidency. As you know, he said that he was concerned by the results of those elections. President Yeltsin is a man with a mission that he believes is critical.
SIMON MARKS: But the President's mission could finally be de-railed in June because of popular sentiment in places like Turya, just a hundred and seventy miles South of Moscow. Five years ago the coal miners here traveled to the Russian capital to voice their support for Boris Yeltsin. Today, they haven't been paid since October, and say their patience with the Russian leader has finally expired. Miners across the country went on strike last month, bringing their industry to a standstill. They say they'll do so again for March the 1st, unless the President makes good on his promise to find some money to pay them. But even if he does, union leader Lev Alifanov argues it's too late for Boris Yeltsin to revive his reputation here.
LEV ALIFANOV, Mine Workers' Union: (speaking through interpreter) How can it be that for the last three years he hasn't been aware of our hardships and problems? No one believes that. No one's got any faith left in Yeltsin. That's for certain. Only a handful of miners will vote for it. In Moscow, when they demonstrated last month, they taunted the President, saying, Boris Nikolayevich, just as we carried you to the presidency, so will we bring you down. The miners simply don't trust the President.
SIMON MARKS: And it isn't just the miners. Russia's professional classes have also lost faith in the President. The country's schoolteachers have been on strike alongside the miners. There's been no money to pay them since November. Teacher Larissa Nikitina is 27. She says it's a struggle raising her own two children on the money she earns teaching youngsters in Turya, and she isn't buying the President's promises.
LARISSA NIKITINA, Teacher: (speaking through interpreter) We know perfectly well that right before the election he's going to offer people everything they want but it won't last. What we want is stability in our lives so that we can live without worrying about tomorrow so that we know tomorrow we're going to have what we need. I'm not talking about luxuries, just what we need to live, so that we know we can raise our children properly. And he's a person who over the last few years has put so many barriers in the way of our lives that he'd just do the same thing again.
SIMON MARKS: The President's advisers insist Boris Yeltsin can overcome public mistrust by reverting to his traditional vigorous style of campaigning between now and June. Though his doctors have given him the all clear to undertake a grueling schedule of appearances nationwide, doubts persist that he can rekindle his old charisma following his two recent heart scares. He'll campaign on behalf of a government that's now entirely bereft of reformers. They were all eliminated from his inner circle in a cabinet purge last month. Yeltsin adviser Dimitry Rurikov says the campaign message will be that Boris Yeltsin understands that people want slower reform and that he's the only person standing between Russia and a return to Communist totalitarianism.
DIMITRY RURIKOV, Yeltsin Aide: I think President Yeltsin will do his best to improve the performance of the government, especially in the social sphere, and in the sphere of payment to the workers and to the employees, and I think that voters are well aware that any return to the past will be very bad for Russia, will be very bad for the world, and I think they will make a wise choice.
SIMON MARKS: But many independent observers don't think the Yeltsin strategy can work. Every morning, the editors of "Izvestiya," once the official mouthpiece of the Soviet parliament, now one of Russia's leading independent newspapers, gather to plan the next day's edition. Increasingly, "Izvestiya's" columns are filled with articles arguing the President is out of touch with public opinion. Editor-in-chief Igor Golombiovsky says President Yeltsin's new promises to the voters won't save him.
IGOR GOLOMBIOVSKY, Editor-in-Chief, Izvestiya: (speaking through interpreter) This is what's known in the West as populism. Yeltsin as ever thinks that he's the guarantor of democratic development, but his attempt through the government reshuffle, introducing a series of populist measures, raising pensions and wages, giving money to students, it's all part of a fevered attempt to win voters back but it won't have any major effect. The only thing that Yeltsin can really do today to win voters back is to end the war in Chechnya.
SIMON MARKS: The crisis in Chechnya remains an enormous self-inflicted stain on President Yeltsin's record. The Russian army's recent military action against Chechen rebels holding hostages in neighboring Dagestan put the unpopular war back in the national spotlight. The President has given his aides two weeks to come up with a solution to the crisis and has publicly acknowledged that he cannot win the June election if the war continues. With President Yeltsin facing so many obstacles on the road to reelection, there is considerable public speculation here that the June Presidential vote may not take place. Presidential aide Georgy Satarov says while there's no plan to cancel the elections, in Russia, anything could happen.
GEORGY SATAROV: (speaking through interpreter) I can categorically say only that President Yeltsin intends to take part in the election on the 16th of June and intends to do all that he can to make sure that this election takes place, but just as I can't guarantee that an icicle won't fall on my head in the street, so too I can't give you a 100 percent guarantee that some sort of force majeure circumstance might not arise which would prevent the election from taking place.
SIMON MARKS: What kind of force majeure here could result in a postponement of the Presidential poll?
GEORGY SATAROV: (speaking through interpreter) Well, I don't know. If during the Presidential debates in the United States some evil-minded people get out machine guns and open fire on both candidates, the elections won't take place, will they?
SIMON MARKS: That sort of talk rings alarm bells at places like "Izvestiya." Editors here say the government's understanding of democracy is loose at best, and has been undermined by President Yeltsin's recent actions.
IGOR GOLOMBIOVSKY: (speaking through interpreter) In the four years since he became President, they haven't even formulated a general direction for the development of a democratic society. To begin with, they declared Communism is over in Russia, and we're creating an open society and an open economy, but in the last few years, they haven't created either. If we look at the economy, the reforms have stopped. If we look at the political system, it hasn't been organized along democratic lines. If you look at foreign policy, you've seen a withdrawal from the policies that were announced in 1991. It's the same in all areas.
SIMON MARKS: Alarmingly to the President, even some of his most staunch Western supporters are now preparing for the worst. The Carnegie Endowment's Anders Ausland was an adviser to the Russian government through the early stages of economic reform and has stood by Boris Yeltsin until now.
ANDERS AUSLAND, Carnegie Endowment: I can't see any possibility whatsoever that, that President Yeltsin will even reach the second round of the Presidential election. What he's doing now is pursuing a policy that alienates all his previous supporters. The Nationalists and Communists hate him anyhow, so I can't see who outside of the narrow power structure that would vote for President Yeltsin. His policy makes no sense.
SIMON MARKS: And in places like Turya, people feel the same. Ultimately for President Yeltsin, the hardest obstacle to overcome may be the widely shared public perception outside the capital that he's now a spent force. Here there is a broad expectation that if the election goes ahead in June, Boris Yeltsin will lose to one of the many alternative leaders preparing to challenge him.
LARISSA NIKITINA: (speaking through interpreter) What's changed is that there are now other leaders. We've become a little more sure, more able to differentiate between them. Democracy was only just developing in 1991. Now we're steeped in it. We understand things more, and we're going to put our future in different hands.
VALERY MINKIN, Coal Miner: (speaking through interpreter) It's obvious that he's just trying to win the miners' votes. But it's an absurd attempt because we will never vote for him again, most of us won't anyway. He's got absolutely no chance.
SIMON MARKS: President Yeltsin will need to summon all his political acumen if he is to turn the situation around in the weeks between now and June 16th.