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Lesser of Evils? Russian Reformers Dismayed by Election Choices

May 21, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ Boris Yeltsin, deep into a re-election campaign against resurgent Communists, has reached for the mantle of one of Russia’s most courageous Soviet-era dissidents.

Andrei Sakharov ``was my teacher of democracy, the teacher of democracy for all Russia,″ Yeltsin said, laying flowers at the Nobel Peace Prize-winner’s tomb Tuesday.

Yet for the dissidents and idealistic reformers who stood up to Soviet tyranny and gathered this week to honor Sakharov, there is heavy disappointment in Russia’s imperfect democracy _ and dismay at the choices in next month’s presidential election.

Many _ including Sakharov’s widow Yelena Bonner _ reject Yeltsin’s suggestion that he is democracy’s torchbearer. But they also fear that the alternative to him in June 16 elections could well be Communism’s return.

``It’s a very hard situation,″ said Sergei Kovalyov, a former dissident and Russia’s best-known human-rights advocate. He has made his choice: He won’t vote for either Yeltsin or the Communists.

While many Sakharov disciples have moved into Yeltsin’s camp, Bonner said Tuesday she cannot because of her opposition to the war in the separatist region of Chechnya.

Bonner told the independent NTV network she was backing rival reformer Grigory Yavlinsky, and would consider supporting Yeltsin only if he formed a coalition with Yavlinsky.

The reformers’ dilemma is shared by many ordinary Russians who wonder what became of the idealism and hope that characterized Sakharov’s last years as a human-rights advocate, lawmaker and prophet of Russia’s pro-democracy movement. He died in 1989, shortly before the Soviet collapse.

Unlike many of their East Bloc counterparts, Russia’s Soviet-era dissidents have largely avoided post-Soviet politics. They have stuck mainly to moral issues, such as promoting human rights or opposing war.

After lending Yeltsin their moral authority in the early days of his anti-Communist crusade, many have since accused him of backtracking on reforms, tolerating corruption, relying on authoritarian methods, and _ worst of all _ waging war in Chechnya.

Under the Communists, however, they could lose what gains have been made. There could be new controls on free speech and religion, for instance, and on private property and freedom of movement.

``Of two evils, we have to choose the lesser,″ said Valery Ginzburg, 71, an old friend of Sakharov and brother of a famous dissident singer, Alexander Galich. Ginzburg intends to vote for Yeltsin.

Tatyana Velikanova, a Moscow dissident from the 1970s and 1980s, disagreed.

``It’s a bad choice. The honorable choice is to vote against both″ Yeltsin and the Communists, she said. She intends to vote for Yavlinsky, who has demanded that Yeltsin remove the security chiefs responsible for the Chechnya war.

The difficult choice has created bitter splits. Kovalyov, who broke with Yeltsin over Chechnya, is ``deeply upset″ that his party, Russia’s Democratic Choice, and its leader, Yegor Gaidar, have decided to back the president.

``Alas, I’ve become a splitter in my party,″ said Kovalyov, insisting, ``You can’t live in a country where the top man has his arms in blood up to his elbows.″

Yeltsin was always regarded somewhat apprehensively by Sakharov and Bonner because of his background as a Communist Party boss. But the two men did work together as leaders of the influential Interregional Group of Deputies, a coalition of pro-democracy lawmakers in the old Soviet legislature, and Yeltsin has listed Sakharov among his heroes.

At Sakharov’s funeral, Yeltsin _ along with Kovalyov and others _ stood as honor guards. And Yeltsin walked close behind the casket in the funeral procession.

Bonner told guests at a new Sakharov museum Monday that her late husband’s struggle for democracy was more important than any political battle and ``should not be perceived as dessert or dressing to the political events now underway.″

``We have yet to say farewell to our totalitarian psyche, even though we now live in a different state,″ she said.

Tuesday was the 75th anniversary of Sakharov’s birth, and former dissidents marked the week with a variety of low-key commemorations.

A physicist who helped build the Soviet atomic bomb, Sakharov was persecuted and exiled for criticism of the Communist regime. Internationally known as an advocate of human rights, he entered parliament in the dying days of Soviet power and was revered as a spokesman for democratic values.

For many ordinary people, Sakharov remains a hero whose stature only grows in comparison with the confusion that has followed.

``It’s shameful, what we did _ and didn’t do _ for Sakharov,″ said Dmitry, an 84-year-old retired engineer who wandered into the museum out of curiosity, and would not give his last name.

``If we had listened to him, things would have been all right. But we took him by the throat. And now we face a return to all that. ... It’s a terrible situation now, a terrible choice.″

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