Pro-Yeltsin Forces' Stealth Tactic: Exploiting Fears of Nationalism Campaigning Picks Up as Vote on the Russian President Approaches

Article excerpt

WITH less than a week until a crucial national referendum, there is a business-as-usual air on the streets of this city, the hub of the Russian south.

But a pocket of campaign atmosphere exists in a small, second-floor office - headquarters of the Russian Republican Party - a few blocks from the regional capital.

At the office, activists buzz with nervous energy and telephones ring with a sense of urgency. Regional Republican Party chief Raisa Grishichkina calls it the local command post for forces supporting President Boris Yeltsin, who faces a vote of confidence in his rule and economic policies in an April 25 referendum.

Well-provisioned with campaign literature piled high on a table and backed by the support of private businessmen and a phalanx of student volunteers, the pro-Yeltsin forces are ready to wage a good fight to keep reforms on track, Ms. Grishichkina says.

But with Mr. Yeltsin's position looking shaky, Grishichkina adds that a good fight doesn't necessarily mean a clean campaign. Indeed, a critical element of the pro-Yeltsin tactics here is to use nationality as a weapon against Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, Yeltsin's bitter political rival and an ethnic Chechen.

"Our last resort is to tell the people that if they don't vote {for Yeltsin,} they'll get a return to the Soviet system with a Chechen as its head," Grishichkina says. The idea is to compare Mr. Khasbulatov with another native son of the Caucasus - former dictator Joseph Stalin.

"It's dirty politics, but what can you do," she continues. "We don't say these things in our leaflets, or on television, but our activists use it on the streets."

Such no-holds-barred campaigning is fraught with explosive consequences in the Rostov area, which is on the fringe of several ethnic conflicts raging in the Caucasus - particularly the civil war in the Georgian region of Abkhazia.

The possibility of social conflict seems very much on the minds of regional politicians - both in the executive and legislative branches of the local government. In an attempt to keep a lid on local ethnic animosities - something that Grishichkina calls a "fact of life" - the politicians are remaining aloof from the pre-referendum hustings so as not to stir passions further.

As in many other Russian regions, executive authorities in Rostov are supporting Yeltsin in the Moscow power struggle, while legislative leaders are backing Mr. Khasbulatov and the national parliament.

But both sides here are quick to point out that relations between the two branches of government in Rostov are harmonious. "We don't have the conflict here that exists in the center {Moscow,}" says Vladimir Yemelyanov, deputy chief of the Rostov Administration. …