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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fine Theater But Now the Harder Part

Finally, President Boris Yeltsin has announced his decision to stand for re-election. Ignoring failing health and declining popularity, the president cast himself Thursday as the sole guarantor of freedom and stability, the lone bulwark against a return to a past of fear and deprivation.


As theater, the president's declaration speech worked well. He brought together the images of the wise statesman, the embattled reformer and the tough negotiator. And most important, he tried to redefine himself against the communist opposition.


But it will take more than a speech to bring Yeltsin victory in the June presidential ballot. Public opinion polls show him running a distant fifth behind Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, reformer Grigory Yavlinsky, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and strongman Alexander Lebed.


Instead of providing a clear alternative to his rivals, Yeltsin seems to be trying to co-opt their ideologies. He has proposed populist social welfare measures that go far beyond anything Zyuganov has dared mention; he has intensified his hardline rhetoric on Chechnya; and he has pledged further reforms to secure the support of democrats.


Yeltsin's positional zigzags verge on the ludicrous. He sacked Anatoly Chubais, his privatization chief, blaming him for everything from the state's empty coffers to the government party's poor electoral performance. But in Yekaterinburg, Yeltsin threw a sop to the liberals by suggesting that Chubais "might return in a year."


After vowing to settle the Chechen conflict peacefully, the president said in an impromptu speech that rebel leaders must be handed over to be shot. It is next to impossible to form a clear picture of what Yeltsin stands for today.


In 1991 he represented a definite break with the communist past and a chance for Russia to enter the "civilized" world of nations. Yeltsin was the defiant warrior, a titan capable of crushing the Soviet beast.


But as Yeltsin begins his second presidential election campaign, it is no longer clear whether Russia under his stewardship is moving forward or creeping backward. And Yeltsin, far from a colossus, is on the defensive, taking on more and more of the characteristics of his erstwhile enemies.


More than one observer has remarked on the similarities between Yeltsin and Leonid Brezhnev in his later years -- ill and bumbling, surrounded by fawning advisors who kept him isolated from the real world.


If Yeltsin is to have any chance at all of winning in June, he must recreate himself, redefine his values and give voters a clear idea of what options he represents. Otherwise he is doomed to defeat, a victim of his own contradictions.