In this country we would say that we are entering the final month of the campaign. In Russia, Wednesday marked the start of a campaign legally limited to a month. But that constraint is largely a fiction.
President Boris Yeltsin, controlling television in a way that an American politician would die for, has been campaigning strenuously for weeks, barnstorming around the country, distributing pork ("presents" in Russian) and spreading the message that, without him, the sky will fall.
Mr. Yeltsin has narrowed the gap between himself and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, but is still trailing seriously enough to have his security chief and confidante, Gen. Alexander Korzhakov, suggest postponing the election.
The current situation looks bleak. Yeltsin is faced with a massive wave of white-collar crime. He is shoveling out rubles to placate workers and pensioners. He has failed to deliver on his promise of peace in Chechnya. And now, in an echo of Eisenhower and Korea in 1952, he says he will go to Chechnya. His weakness is shown by his claim to having forged a coalition with reformer Grigory Yavlinsky, which Yavlinsky denied has happened yet. Yeltsin has even tried the uncommon tactic of humility, saying to one crowd, "I can tell you honestly I am not proud of the job I have done."
What Yeltsin is trying to convey is that at stake in this election is not just the name of the next president, but the survival of Russia's burgeoning democratic system.
Zyuganov disclaims any intention of dismantling democracy. But his denunciations of world supergovernment and the danger of Russia becoming an American vassal state signal the possibility of something more extreme than a modest renationalization of some industries.
As the official campaign period starts, polls indicate that Yeltsin will come in well behind Zyuganov on June 16 and that in the subsequent runoff election the incumbent will be just about neck and neck with his Communist challenger.
The uncertainty about Russia's future is spurring a flight of capital, putting a new strain on the ruble.
Yeltsin's pre-campaign tactic is to play on Russian fear of instability. A professedly nonpolitical video last week showed a sad war veteran who talked of wanting to see his children and grandchildren "enjoy the fruits of victory we fought for and they didn't let us enjoy." "They," of course, were the Communists.