Victory Day rallies become
forum for political dueling


May 9, 1996
Web posted at: 10:50 p.m. EDT (0220 GMT)

From Correspondent Arthur Kent

MOSCOW (CNN) -- Their chests bristling with medals, Russia's World War II veterans watched from the edge of Red Square Thursday as President Boris Yeltsin addressed Russians from atop Lenin's tomb in a Victory Day program.

For Russians, it was a day to remember victory over Hitler's Germany 51 years ago. And for Yeltsin, who is just weeks away from the presidential election, it was another occasion to rally support for the political battle raging in Russia.

"Glory and honor to you," Yeltsin told the veterans, comparing their World War II heroics to Russia's present struggle for reform.

"A backward turn would be a catastrophe," Yeltsin said, clearly alluding to the threat of a Communist resurgence.

Meanwhile in the Chechen capital, Grozny, Russian troops paraded amid the ashes of Yeltsin's own misadventure. It was a vivid reminder that the stain of the failed Chechnya campaign is one of the major threats to Yeltsin's re-election bid.

parade parade

Yeltsin's staunchest political opponents were also in a nostalgic mood. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, the man favored in some recent polls to upset Yeltsin in next month's election, led tens of thousands of supporters on a separate rally through the heart of Moscow. But the Communists have a very different view of the future. They envision a return to Communism and a Communist government.

Supporters of leftist parties contesting the June 16 election accuse Yeltsin and his reformers of squandering Soviet achievements. As they gathered around the headquarters of the former Lybyanka headquarters of the KGB on Thursday, the image of disgraced former dictator Josef Stalin caused friction between hard-line and more moderate Communist organizers. But on the podium, politicians and military figures showed solidarity, especially for Zyuganov, who has allied himself with more radical Communists, including Alexander Rutskoi, who led the White house rebellion against Yeltsin in 1993.

communist rally

Intense anti-Yeltsin sentiment was ever-present at the Communist rally.

"He has divided people, prices have increased, life is impossible," one woman said.

"We hate Yeltsin and his gang, what they've done to our country," said a man at the rally.

But there were mixed opinions among veterans. One said he would only vote for the Communist, while another said he'd vote for Yeltsin because "he has experience."

"I'm still undecided, but one thing I'm sure about is we need to go on with reforms," a third veteran said, speaking, perhaps, for many other veterans watching the present campaign.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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