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Soviet Workers Intrigued by Yeltsin

On a Moscow street, people debate the controversial politician's programs for reform. VOX POPULI IN MOSCOW

`MAVERICK,'' ``fiery,''``rebel,'' ``radical.'' Read any article in the Western press on Boris Yeltsin and inevitably one of these words will be used to describe the politician who has won the hearts and minds of more than 5 million Muscovites and countless other millions across the Soviet Union. Mr. Yeltsin's political savvy of promising both progress and social justice has won him a standing as a national hero among workers rivaled only by that of Lenin himself. He appeals to a population frustrated by a lack of results promised by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika (restructuring), fed up with the old system, and impatient for a new one. He presents himself as the champion of the ``little man'' and the terminator of the nomenklatura - officials who receive privileges of special food, cars, and consumer goods.

As Yeltsin's programs for pulling the country out of an economic crisis unfold - throwing the system head-on into a market economy - his constituency sees there are costs involved: unemployment, differential pay, responsibilities, decisions. The costs won't keep these people from continuing to support Yeltsin, but as they roll up their shirt-sleeves for the fight ahead, they are having to rethink priorities.

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Sergei Ultianov, a machine worker who supported Yeltsin in the March legislative elections, questions his program for economic self-sufficiency of producers. ``I agree that things have to change, and change fast,'' Mr. Ultianov says. ``But Boris Nikolayavich (Yeltsin), I feel, is putting too much on the shoulders of the workers.''

Ultianov looks around at the people standing outside the offices of the weekly Moscow News, where crowds gather to read the news kiosks and discuss the week's events. He weighs his words: ``If a factory doesn't produce what it is supposed to produce, if it doesn't make profits, then the worker will be responsible. ... But I personally don't want to be responsible for a failure in production if it's not my fault.''

Sergei's sister Svetlana, a trade journal editor, is more optimistic: Yeltsin's ``vision of the future is full of risks. But we have reached the point where we have to take risks.''

Andrei Bukhakin, drawn by the mention of Yeltsin's name, strays from another group debating the nationalities issue in the Baltics. ``Risks? What risks?'' he asks. ``Yeltsin knows exactly how to run this economy. The only people who should be worried by Yeltsin are those who are going to lose their privileges.'' He spits out the word spyetz, Russian slang for ``privilege.'' ``These will be redistributed to those who deserve them: the people.''

Soon, a small group has gathered to discuss the controversial politician who was ousted as Moscow's Communist Party chief in 1987, elected to parliament with overwhelming popular support in a contested election, and is now in the midst of a two-week visit to the United States.

Yeltsin's supporters can see no problems in his platform. Decentralization of the economy, they say, will not cost jobs.

``My brother works at the Zil factory,'' a middle-aged man sporting a Lenin cap shouts.

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During the March campaign, Yeltsin went up against Yevgeny Brakov, director of the Zil plant that makes the shiny and sinister black limousine, a symbol of power and privilege.

``If they stop making Zils tomorrow because they are taken away from the nomenklatura, then he will not be out of a job.'' The man continues, readying his punchline. Yeltsin ``will simply convert the factory to produce Zhigulis for all of us to drive.''

Heads are thrown back in laughter. There are a few ``hurrahs.'' The Yeltsin contingency loves this idea of poetic justice.

An elderly man on the fringe, laden with war medals, presses the issue of unemployment. ``What if a factory isn't making money? What if it closes down? Where will the workers go?''

A man with a bag that reads ``What we need now is new ideas'' shouts: ``If they want to work, then they will work. Look at this country! It needs people who want to work. ... It's about time people started doing things for themselves, it helps everyone.''

The only cloud that threatens Yeltsin's political parade is that of economic sovereignty for the republics. At a time when the republics are erupting with nationalist sentiment, this seems to be a dangerous prospect.

``Yes, this is a sharp question.'' Svetlana nods. ``Who should have economic power? Of course the people should. But we should make certain that the people of Estonia, Latvia, Moldavia realize that they are part of this country, too. That they are not striving for economic achievement of just the republic, but of the entire nation.''

``Just like in the United States,'' Andrei Bukhakin offers.

``Ach!'' The elderly veteran on the fringe throws his hand at Mr. Bukhakin. ``Just like in the States where they have homeless, drug addicts, unemployment. ... This country is headed toward anarchy and Yeltsin will lead us.''

``Look, old man,'' Bukhakin says, ``it can't get any worse than it is now.''

The veteran turns uncertainly on his heels. All eyes are on him. He turns back. ``That's what Gorbachev said four years ago,'' he says, and walks off.

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