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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Campaign '93: Mud, Populism and Promises

The political campaign leading up to Sunday's referendum on confidence in President Boris Yeltsin speaks volumes about what has changed- and what has not -in Russian politics.


Gone is the sense that every time a leader steps out of a limousine into a crowd of workers, the whole thing is a cynical and carefully orchestrated show.


Imagine Leonid Brezhnev pinning a medal on the black leather jacket of a heavy metal rock star or Josef Stalin meeting with the leaders of Russia's religious groups two days after attending nationally televised Easter services. Yeltsin has done both of these things.


To help voters choose sides, today's Russian politicians are resorting to the means used in states with a deeper democratic tradition - a little pork, a little pressing the flesh and a lot of mud.


They are doing it, however, with the decidedly heavy-handed manner of the Russian political tradition.


Since his referendum campaign kicked into high gear at the beginning of this month, Yeltsin has practiced pork barrel politics with a passion.


He has signed a decree on better working conditions for miners in the coal mining capital of Kemerovo. He has raised stipends for students at a meeting with leaders of student organizations. After local motorists complained about gas price hikes, Yeltsin promised a cap on fuel price rises until at least June.


These promises could deal serious blows to the reforms Yeltsin wants the electorate to support in the vote.


"All these promises are a bad thing", said Viktor Levashov, chief analyst of the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Sociopolitical Research. "They create the illusion that these measures can be fulfilled, when they cannot, without putting a heavy burden on the economy".


Yeltsin has said the pork barrel politicking is justified.


"You have to give reforms a little push", Yeltsin said in its defense during a television film about his family life, itself another unprecedented propaganda effort to show the head of state as a man of the people.


"The president has to travel around the country and help worker's collectives", Naina Yeltsina, the president's wife, said in the film, apparently unaware that she had used an outmoded term.


And Yeltsin has definitely traveled. Last week, he spent Tuesday meeting coal miners in Kemerovo. On Friday, he went to Minsk to meet with the leaders of the CIS. On Easter Sunday, he visited the ancient Russian capital of Vladimir.


In between these trips, Yeltsin pressed the flesh with hard rock musicians and gnarly industrialists, and presented medals to cosmonaut heros and comic actors.


One of Yeltsin's main rivals, parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, also has been on the campaign trial. Several days after the president met with war veterans, Khasbulatov met with them.


While Yeltsin was courting union leaders in Moscow, Khasbulatov was listening sympathetically to disgruntled factory directors in the southern Russian city of Voronezh.


And then there is mudslinging, the sine qua non of political campaigns in the free world.


Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who in the campaign has confirmed his key role in the opposition camp, last week accused high-ranking members of Yeltsin's government of profiteering from property sales to foreign businesses and the local mafia.


One deputy prime minister whom Rutskoi implicated, Anatoly Chubais, responded by casting aspersions on Rutskoi's manhood.


"Alexander Vladimirovich, be a man for once in your life", the slender economist Chubais challenged the former air force officer and Afghan War hero. "Take me to court and let them decide".


Now, apparently, Rutskoi has. The public prosecutor's office announced Thursday it had evidence from Rutskoi incriminating top Yeltsin aides, including Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, and would start an investigation.