Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Gorbachev and Yeltsin Square off Returning from Summit, Soviet Leader Faces Stiff Challenge from Populist Rival. THE POLITICS OF REFORM

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Gorbachev and Yeltsin Square off Returning from Summit, Soviet Leader Faces Stiff Challenge from Populist Rival. THE POLITICS OF REFORM

Article excerpt

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV leaves the heavens of great-power summitry and cheering American crowds and returns today to the earthly tumult of Soviet politics and a people increasingly mistrustful of his promises for reform.

Despite voluminous coverage of Mr. Gorbachev's visit by Soviet television and newspapers, there is little evidence that he has gained much in popularity from his success abroad.

The relaxation of the threat of war with the West is taken for granted here. The concerns of Soviet people are focused at home, especially on the crisis shortages in the economy. The recently proposed economic reform, which includes planned rises in the prices of most basic commodities, has drawn fire from all sides.

"Americans see Gorbachev from far away, while we see him up close," commented one Moscow housewife when asked about the gap in reactions. "We judge him in the marketplace." And there Soviet shoppers find the worst combination - fewer goods at higher prices.

The sight of Gorbachev and his wife Raisa enjoying adulation amidst the opulence of American life brings mostly sarcastic comparisons by Muscovites with the dreariness of their own lives.

In Gorbachev's absence, the frustrations of the Soviet people gained a new and potent expression in the form of the upset election of populist politician Boris Yeltsin as the president of the Russian Republic, the heartland of the Soviet Union. Despite intense personal lobbying up to the eve of his departure, Gorbachev was unable to persuade a majority of members of the republic's newly elected parliament to back his chosen candidate.

According to a Moscow-based pollster, Gorbachev continues to be No. 1 in popularity. But before, he says, "Gorbachev was like a tree in the grass" compared with other political figures. Now Mr. Yeltsin also has a visible following.

Yeltsin's public popularity owes much to his ability to express quite contradictory feelings in his sometimes vague declarations. On one hand, he heads the Democratic Bloc in the parliament, the liberal faction that criticizes Gorbachev's government for hesitating in pushing through radical reform. At the same time, he enjoys support from ordinary people who are fearful that a market economy will bring inflation, the end of subsidized low prices for basic goods, housing, and other services, and the uncertainties of unemployment and bankruptcy.

The results of a recent poll bear out those analysts who argue that the Soviet population is still widely pro-reform. Some 75 percent of those surveyed thought the pace of reforms was "too slow." But those same people are skeptical of the government's reform plans, with only a third supporting them and 47 percent dismissing them as "only symbolic."

Yeltsin also clearly benefits from a carefully cultivated image of a man who has defied authority.

In the past, Gorbachev was very effective at using Yeltsin's presence to balance out his critics on the right, those conservative communists who oppose significant change. …

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