Boris Yeltsin is mustering all the considerable powers of incumbency in his bid for a second term. From pork-barrel politics to media manipulation, he’s using almost every trick in the book.
The Russian president is even trying to appropriate national holidays.
He sent personalized letters to World War II veterans on Victory Day and the Kremlin is telling regional officials to turn Independence Day into a “grandiose” demonstration of support for Yeltsin.
Russian Independence Day falls on June 12, the same date Yeltsin was first elected in 1991. It comes just four days before this presidential election.
“Having won this day, we’ll win the presidential election as well,” Yeltsin aide Vyacheslav Volkov told regional officials this week.
Volkov’s comment may overstate the case, but it reflects the Kremlin’s awareness that creating the right kind of “buzz” around the incumbent is critical.
In politics, image is partner to buzz. And Yeltsin’s team, aided and abetted by docile broadcasters, publishers, pollsters and pundits, is working overtime to refashion the Russian president’s image.
Gone is the ailing, aging, often reclusive leader loathed by much of the Russian public. There’s a new Yeltsin - robust, outgoing, in charge - and he acts like a winner.
The transformation caught the opposition off guard. Yeltsin’s challengers thought the deeply unpopular president would be his own worst enemy - and their best weapon.
Instead, polls say this “new” Yeltsin is steadily gaining against one-time frontrunner, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, while the nine other candidates are stagnating.
Yeltsin’s campaign is like a steamroller, flattening everything in its path - or so the president’s spin masters would have you believe.
“It’s like the czar running for another term as czar,” says political analyst Viktor Linnik.
Out on the campaign trail, challengers like Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky are trying to dispel the Yeltsin spin.
It isn’t easy.
While Yeltsin is whisked about on presidential jets, limos and yachts, these guys take the night train. While the media slavishly reports Yeltsin’s every move, his opponents are often ignored.
In Novgorod, for example, mainstream papers refused to carry a local poll showing reformer Grigory Yavlinsky ahead of Yeltsin. It was finally reported in the tiny paper Samovar, which is distributed free in local butcher shops.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has cranked the hoopla level into overdrive with billboards, posters, mass mailings, slick ads, bumper stickers, government giveaways, presidential visits, publicity stunts, and political pressure.
Most importantly, Yeltsin controls the national media and much of the regional media as well.
“Probably the most significant factor is that the entire television industry works for him,” political scientist Lilia Shevtsova wrote recently.
Starved of the resources Yeltsin commands, his main challengers are relying on personal appearances and a limited amount of free TV and radio time to get their message across to a wide audience.
For a major candidate, Zyuganov is running an especially modest campaign. He travels a lot and draws good crowds, but is unable to generate the excitement - and the media attention - of his presidential rival.
His campaign is low-key and low-budget and aimed largely at the faithful Communist electorate.
Zyuganov has no instinct for a photo op; he wouldn’t recognize a sound bite if it bit him. His appearances are stiff and carefully scripted. His TV spots are glitz-less appeals to nostalgia for Soviet superpowerdom.
Like the rest of Yeltsin’s challengers, he is relying heavily on the free TV and radio time.