Yavlinsky: Yeltsin Spoiler or Last Honest Reformer? He Alone Has Candor, but His Ego Is Huge

Article excerpt

The campaign ad on Russian television was couched in simple language - the kind of explanation of democracy that could have appeared on Sesame Street.

"All of us are beholden to our bosses, but once in every four years the bosses are beholden to us. Once in every four years, we elect the president, and it is he who is the biggest boss," Grigory Yavlinsky told the Russian people.

It was a startlingly different tone from the empty or obscure media messages with which other democratic or government candidates have bombarded the public. It went far to explain why Mr. Yavlinsky, 44, is now widely known as "the last of the democratic reformers."

He is the only one of them who has seriously tried to communicate his message simply and clearly to the Russian people.

In December, Mr. Yavlinsky's Yabloko (Yavlinsky bloc), or the Apple party, ran a strong fourth in Russia's parliamentary elections, coming close behind Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's Nash Dom Rossiya (Our Home Is Russia) party, which, even with the limitless resources of the government behind it, could not do better.

Now Mr. Yavlinsky is running for the presidency, splitting pro-Western reformers who either regard him with hatred or admiration.

"Yavlinsky is a controversial figure among democratic forces," said Susan Eisenhower, chairman of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies.

Some reformers see Mr. Yavlinsky as an irresponsible, ambitious and selfish egotist who could crucially weaken President Boris Yeltsin's fight for re-election and open the way for a Communist restoration.

"He is seen as a spoiler for his refusal to support Yeltsin," Miss Eisenhower said.

But others see him as the last honest reformer: a brilliant economist whose ideas were ignored by both Mr. Yeltsin and the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, with catastrophic results for the nation.

"Yavlinsky can still take several million votes from Yeltsin in the presidential election," said Keith Bush, director of Russian studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "In the big cities, a lot of people will still vote for him."

Mr. Yeltsin has been running neck-and-neck with Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov in recent opinion polls. He understands very well that he desperately needs Mr. Yavlinsky's support to rally to the Yeltsin banner in the June election all the democrats and free-market supporters who have been disillusioned by his policies.

A recent poll indicates Mr. Yavlinsky commands about 9 percent of the electorate compared with well over 20 percent each for Mr. Yeltsin and his chief rival, Mr. Zyuganov. Therefore, joining forces with Mr. Yavlinsky would give a huge boost to Mr. Yeltsin's chances of beating Mr. Zyuganov.

"Every single vote counts. We think every vote could tip the scales one way or the other," Mr. Yeltsin said in the Siberian city of Omsk Sunday.

Mr. Yeltsin said he had offered Mr. Yavlinsky the post of first deputy prime minister in charge of reform but that the reform economist was holding out to be prime minister.

Yavlinsky aides later denied that their boss had demanded the job of prime minister - which includes succeeding the president as interim ruler if he dies in office - and denied he wants the post. …