MOSCOW -- Boris Yeltsin has been many things to many people in the wild course of his political career: Communist boss, anti-Communist maverick, populist, czar, reformer, guardian of the status quo. But on the eve of a presidential election that many feared would put a Communist back in the Kremlin, pro-reform Russians had a new title for him: last resort. 'I'll probably vote for Yeltsin; there's no one else,' said Igor Grishin, a 63-year-old merchant marine captain, during a Yeltsin campaign visit to the port city of Arkhangelsk. 'Russia doesn't have a great choice,' a Western diplomat said. Millions of Russians came to the same discouraging conclusion as they mulled their options before the June 16 election, a neck-and-neck race between Yeltsin and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. With his reputation battered by the brutal war in Chechnya, where at least 30,000 civilians and several thousand Russian soldiers have been killed, and a steep rise in crime, corruption and the cost of living, Yeltsin has lost much of the support he enjoyed as Russia's first president in 1991. But many voters, even those who have watched their living standard drop and financial security evaporate during Yeltsin's economic reforms, fear things could get even worse under a Communist president. Yeltsin did much to cultivate that perception in his campaign. He hammered on people's fear of the past and warned that a Zyuganov victory would mean a return to repression, terror, food shortages and even civil war.
Instead of offering a clear vision for a new, revitalized Russia, he built his campaign on assurances that economic growth is just around the corner and promised government handouts to ease the pain of transition. Yet the election campaign brought out the best in the 65-year-old president, who has suffered two mild heart attacks in the past year and whose torpid speech and puffy face just months ago prompted speculation that he was not in control of either himself or the country. 'Yeltsin has managed to confound us all,' a Western diplomat said. 'There has never been a time in his life when he's been more active.' After months of reclusiveness punctuated by rare public addresses and a few foreign trips, Yeltsin -- who clearly relishes a political fight and is at his best when the pressure is on -- stormed back onto the stage in January. Wading into crowds across Russia with a cordless microphone that boomed his voice over speakers held by members of his entourage, he was a dynamo of positive energy, cutting a dashing image with his perfectly groomed silver mane and fresh, relaxed look. Yeltsin last fall appeared unable to even stand by himself. Now, suddenly, he was playing with children on swingsets, descending into a coal mine, boogying down at a pop concert, dancing with women half his age at campaign gigs across the country -- and looking like he was enjoying every minute of it. Not since he was the Communist Party boss of Moscow in the mid 1980s, when he stunned Russians by coming down from the lofty perch of the party elite to ride the city's buses and wait in line with shoppers, had he shown such interest in ordinary people. The blitz campaign, aided to no small extent by two blatantly pro- Yeltsin state television stations and an obsequious free press, gave a rocket boost to Yeltsin's popularity, according to public opinion surveys. An authoritative poll conducted in late May showed Yeltsin's popularity rising, reaching 32.6 percent compared to 19.7 percent for Zyuganov. Many analysts began to grow confident that Yeltsin would indeed win the election -- if not in the June 16 ballot, then during a second round scheduled, if necessary, for the first half of July. But they said that if re-elected, the highly visible Yeltsin of the campaign period would likely fade back behind the Kremlin walls, leaving the country once again in the hands of a clique of hawkish, secretive advisers whose influence cost him the support of many Russian democrats. During the campaign, Yeltsin spent time with figures outside his regular circle, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Col. Gen. Boris Gromov. 'He realizes that Yeltsin the reformer can win, but Yeltsin the poodle of (Gen. Alexander) Korzhakov cannot,' said a Western analyst, referring to Yeltsin's shadowy chief bodyguard and close confidant. Korzhakov is suspected of pushing for a hard line on Chechnya and meddling in politics and privatization, most recently saying the election should be canceled in the interest of 'stability.' Should Yeltsin 'go back to sleep' after winning the election, economic reforms would be left as they were before, 'lurching in the right direction,' the analyst said. 'I can't see that just a continuation of the present would be bad,' said Peter Houlder, managing director of the CenterInvest Group, a consulting firm. 'Most people believe that a healthy Yeltsin victory will lead to massive investment. He should be able to undertake a good amount of work,' Houlder said. He noted it would be impossible for Yeltsin to fulfill the dozens of campaign promises he has made, but the general trend of a stabilizing economy and strengthening ruble would continue. Others were less sanguine. Andrei Piontkovsky, a senior analyst at the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies, said it would make little difference who won the election, which he called 'a superficial phenomenon.' 'I think Yeltsin will win, but his victory would be a victory for Korzhakov and the party of war. I don't believe in a democratic Yeltsin, ' he said, referring to a group of advisers and ministers who pushed the president to use force against Chechen separatists. Piontkovsky said former Communist bosses and factory directors who lined their pockets and strengthened the grip on their fiefdoms during Yeltsin's fast and loose privatization program would make a deal with any government to continue amassing fortunes at the expense of average citizens. 'The election will pass, but this predator capitalism will continue, combined with increasing xenophobia,' said Piontkovsky, predicting more government support for defense industries, the security organs and the military as Russia seeks answers to its economic crises beyond its borders in the next decade. 'In Eastern Europe, the nomenklatura privatized property, but the Russian nomenklatura privatized both property and the government,' he said. 'The red director not only got his factory, but still gets government subsidies. He doesn't pay taxes, doesn't pay his workers. He has all the privileges of a capitalist with none of the responsibilities.' The difference between the Yeltsin of 1986, when as Moscow's party chief he become famous for attacking the abuse of power by the ruling class, and the Yeltsin of 1996 is stark. 'The initial burgeoning of President Boris Yeltsin's popularity was linked precisely with his sharp criticism of the nomenklatura's privileges,' wrote Konstantin Zuyev, a researcher at the Russian Institute of Philosophy, in a Moscow newspaper. 'Today, Yeltsin doesn't suggest that the new 'financial heroes' should be held accountable to the public for their feats.' A Western diplomat took a more mixed view of Yeltsin, saying that history would probably base its judgment on a long-term assessment of his dismantling of the Soviet Union. 'He was necessary, key, vital,' the diplomat said. 'But he stayed around for too long. The Chechen war was not supposed to happen, and he has surrounded himself with less than competent, mean people, which wasn't supposed to happen either.' If in spite of the pessimists Russia becomes a prosperous, stable power, he said Yeltsin might be known someday as 'the father of his country.' 'But it would have been better if he had nurtured a successor,' the diplomat said.