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Analysis From Washington -- Competing For Nationalist Vote

Washington, June 17 (RFE/RL) - If preliminary returns from Sunday's vote hold up, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov will each be courting the Russian nationalist vote as they seek to put together winning coalitions in the second round.

Such a competition for the votes of nationalists -- who appear to have dominated the share of the vote that did not go to either of the frontrunners -- could not only lead to an explosion of nationalist rhetoric on all sides but also both forge alliances and create expectations that might cast a shadow long after the votes are counted.

In the first round of the voting, both Yeltsin and Zyuganov each reached out to those Russians who want a more assertive foreign policy with regard to both the former Soviet republics and the West.

But in so doing neither could hope to compete with candidates like Vladimir Zhirinovsky who provided a purer nationalist program, and in the second round, neither can afford to put his basic constituency at risk by dramatically changing course.

Now, however, both men will have to try to win the nationalists over. In this upcoming competition, each man has several advantages and several equally strong dissadvantages.

Having cast himself as an anti-communist and received the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, Yeltsin can tap into some of the more traditional elements of Russian nationalism. But as a participant in the destruction of the Soviet Union and as a leader who has on many occasions deferred to the West, Yeltsin will have a difficult time attracting the more rabid in the nationalist camp.

Zyuganov, in contrast, has very different assets and liabilities. On the one hand, as a Communist, he can hardly hope to win the support of those who have defined their nationalism in anti-communist terms. But on the other, he can portray himself as a supporter of the idea of a restored Russian power and attack Yeltsin for failing to defend the interests of Russia and Russians.

This competition for the nationalist vote is likely to take two forms. Each man will certainly try to attract the leaders of specific parties to his side -- Yeltsin's prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin suggested Sunday that the Russian president intended to do just that -- by offering offices or policy changes.

But more interesting and obvious are likely to be the direct appeals to the Russian nationalists. Both Yeltsin and Zyuganov are likely to tell the nationalists what they want to hear: that Russia must be a superpower and independent of the West, that Moscow should dominate the former Soviet space, and that each of them would do more to take care of the 25 million ethnic Russians who live in the former Soviet republics.

Whether such statements would be only campaign rhetoric or represent a sea change in Russian policy depends not only on who wins but also on the reaction of Russians themselves, their neighbors and the West.

If a large number of Russians are put off by this rhetoric, its use by the two finalists will be limited and its impact on the future will be small. If, however, Russians do not react negatively to it, then this rhetoric may presage the future.

The challenge for Russia's neighbors and for the West is much greater. While both groups will hope that the nationalist language is only campaign rhetoric and neither will want to undermine Yeltsin, either obsessive attention to what Yeltsin and Zyuganov are likely to be saying or a dismissive attitude entirely could have some very negative consequences.

Indeed, the two-step way in which the Russian presidential elections are now organized could easily have far more consequences for the direction of Moscow's foreign policy than any of the statements the candidates have made up to now.