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In Russia's Heartland, Yeltsin Pitches a Defensive Message

Delays in wages for workers may be his Achilles' heel in Sunday election

As Krasnoyarsk goes, so goes the nation. At every Russian election for the past five years, the results in this vast heartland region stretching from the Arctic Ocean nearly to Mongolia have faithfully mirrored the nationwide vote.

And as the June 16 presidential elections approach, that is bad news for President Boris Yeltsin.

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"We have a lot of very, very hard work to do in Krasnoyarsky krai [region] for the president to win here, and I am not sure it is possible," admits Yuri Grudin, one of the co-chairmen of Mr. Yeltsin's campaign in Krasnoyarsk.

The reasons seem clear. The president is expected to do well in large cities and in workplaces where free-market economic reforms have taken hold firmly enough to create prosperity in their wake. But he is trailing far behind Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov in the poverty-stricken countryside and in small towns where factories that once relied on state orders now lie idle.

And in the Krasnoyarsky region, as in the rest of Russia, there are almost twice as many voters in the countryside as in urban areas.

Krasnoyarsk Enterprise Electro is a case in point. A small company that once built cattle barns and grain dryers for collective farms, Electro now has few orders, half the work force it used to employ, and has handed out no paychecks since January.

In a dingy hall dominated by a large portrait of Vladimir Lenin made with wooden inlay, works director Viktor Khorolsky stood at the lectern May 29, addressed his employees as "comrades," and urged them to vote for socialism before introducing a visitor, Gennady Potekhin.

Mr. Potekhin, secretary of the Communist Party's Krai Committee here, made a wide-ranging speech about the disasters he said the "so-called democrats" had wrought in Russia, and recalled the glories of the Soviet epoch, when industrial output surged.

He drew generally approving nods of support from the aging audience as he promised a return to the best of their memories. "Yes, we will return to the past, to recover what we lost - the right to a job, free health care, free education, free housing," he pledged.

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Difficult campaign promise

On the other side of town that morning, a construction worker who would identify himself only as Mikhail stalked out of his factory gates, shocked by the telegram he said he had just received telling him of his brother's death.

What made him angry as well, though, was the fact that he has not been paid for three months and had to go to the manager to ask specially for enough money to go to the funeral.

"I don't expect anything from Yeltsin," he snorted. "Maybe I'll vote for [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky," the extreme nationalist leader.

Persistent delays in paying wages, both in the state and private sector, are campaign issue No. 1 in Krasnoyarsk, political organizers say.

Although Yeltsin promised he would solve this problem by the end of March it remains his Achilles' heel, as cash-strapped company directors take the path of least resistance out of their financial difficulties by withholding salaries.

That, and an awareness that much of Russian industry is still in the doldrums, has obliged presidential campaign workers to cast the election in stark terms.

"It is important not to separate issues out individually," explains Alexander Plaksin, head of the local branch of The People's House, a network of cultural organizations that is acting as a vehicle for Yeltsin's campaign. "If society were more sophisticated we could look at how individual candidates approach individual issues. But here the choice is between black and white."

"We are not talking about just changing a president," argues Mr. Grudin. "We are talking about changing the fundamentals, and we have no illusions" about what a Communist victory would mean.

The Yeltsin team is also hammering home the message that although life is difficult for many Russians today, they have the freedom to show initiative and enterprise and to better their lives. "Yes, there is not much money, but we have to learn how to make money," Grudin insists. "It is better there are goods on the shelves, and people have the opportunity to move themselves to earn money."

That message, however, has only limited appeal, points out Alexander Gorelik, a professor at a local university and a democratic candidate in Duma (parliament) elections three years ago.

"It resonates only with younger people," ready to adapt to the new Russia, he says. "It doesn't have any effect on people nearer retirement" who make up a large part of the electorate.

The Yeltsin campaign is also trying hard here to overcome the governments image of aloofness from the people through a program of town meetings at which local authorities are wheeled out to answer voters' questions about their performance.

At one such meeting in a borough of Krasnoyarsk city May 28, most questions were about the failings of the local dog catcher and the inordinate length of time that roadwork seems to take. But Mayor Pyotr Timashkov rose to a higher plane.

"Just understand one thing," he urged the audience. "If we elect Boris Yeltsin, at least we will be free to criticize him, and we will have stability for the next five years. Think carefully."

That line of argument echoes widely among those voters who are not too badly off.

"Why change one bad thing for another?," asked Irina Karnilova, an insurance clerk, as she stood chatting outside her workplace, the Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant, the second largest aluminum smelter in the world, which has the merit of paying decent salaries on time.

"A lot of people will vote Yeltsin not because they like him but because they are against Zyuganov," suggests Professor Gorelik. "And a lot of people are afraid of changes, in case they make things worse."

Kinder, gentler Communist

The Communists, meanwhile, are struggling to shake the public's impression that they would introduce radical changes, renationalizing privatized companies, for example, or banning imports of the foodstuffs that Russians have come to expect. But it is hard.

They point out that Mr. Zyuganov is running not on the Communist platform, but at the head of a leftist coalition, the Popular Patriotic Forces. And they stress that the new Communists favor a mixed economy, even if the state would have the dominant role.

But "I don't think a broad range of voters properly understand Zyuganov's program," acknowledges Vladislav Yurchik, head of the Communist leader's local campaign. "For that we would need the media."

The media, though, are firmly in the hands of the local administration, which is firmly behind Yeltsin. Beyond the legally mandated campaign advertising slots on television and radio, the Communists cannot expect much exposure here. The speech that Yeltsin made on his visit weeks ago, however, is still being replayed on prime time local TV.

On election day, though, such advantages may not be enough. Russia's chaotic economic reforms, and the industrial collapse they precipitated, have left too many voters in the lurch over the past five years, and all the president can offer them - if they believe him any more - is a distant hope of improvement.

"We tell people that during transition periods there are difficulties that have to be overcome, that they must wait and be patient," says Alexander Temerov, coordinator of volunteer campaign workers on the Yeltsin team here. "But the harshness of the economic and social situation, and of people's mood, is our biggest obstacle," he adds.

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