Prague, June 17 (RFE/RL) - The incumbent Boris Yeltsin and his Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov emerged after the first round of voting yesterday as top contenders for Russia's presidency. They will face each other in a run-off contest.
With some 90 percent of the vote counted, Yeltsin led Zyuganov by 35 percent to 32 percent. Retired General Aleksandr Lebed was third with more than 14 percent, while economist Grigory Yavlinsky was in fourth place with 7.5 percent. Ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky was behind with about 6 percent of the vote. The elections are widely seen as fair and free.
The results confirmed widely held expectations. Almost. The one major and politically important surprise was Lebed's showing.
The retired general, who has long enjoyed the reputation of "Russia's toughest soldier" and was forced into retirement because of disagreements with Defense Minister Pavel Grachev over military policy, emerged as a potential power broker for the second round of balloting.
Lebed has said that he wants a role in the future Russian government. Both Yeltsin and Zyuganov hinted that they would be willing to entertain Lebed's wishes in exchange for his support in the campaign for the second round of balloting.
It is assumed that the general would rather be inclined to make a deal with Yeltsin. He was reported to have rejected Zyuganov's openings. And there have already been reports that Yeltsin was planning a meeting with Lebed to discuss possibilities for a government post -- perhaps to supervise the so-called power ministries (Defense, Security, Interior) -- for the general in a new Yeltsin administration.
But can Lebed deliver? According to various public opinion polls, Lebed might have been supported largely by nationalists, law-and-order advocates and proponents of tough no-nonsense approach to government.
While cool to Communist Zyuganov, these people could hardly be suspected of pro-Yeltsin sentiments. They apparently have not liked the way the war in Chechnya has been conducted, and they have been long contemptuous of both Yeltsin's style of government and his unfulfilled promises. Will they now throw their support behind the frequently despised president just because their favorite general asks them to do so?
Liberal Yavlinsky and ultra-nationalist Zhirinovsky were not expected to do well. And they did not. The vote confirmed that.
The vote also confirmed the existence of a great divide within a country as a whole. A divide between an urban and potentially middle-class Russia and one inhabited by impoverished masses of frequently disoriented and frustrated people.
Urban Russia supported Yeltsin. This is shown in results from such large industrial and administrative centers as Moscow (62 percent of the pro-Yeltsin vote), St. Petersburg (49 percent), Sverdlovsk (59 percent), Chelyabinsk (38 percent) or Tomsk (36 percent).
But the rest of the country: the mining centers of the north, Siberia (Novosibirsk) and the vast rural regions of western and southern Russia (Smolensk, Tver, Volgograd, Stavropol, Rostov, Ryazan and so on) all went for Zyuganov.
Indeed, it seems that the places in which Yeltsin won are but islands in the Zyuganov sea. It is true that these islands are populous and politically important, but they appear geographically surrounded by potentially hostile elements.
This is perhaps the most significant finding emerging from the first round of the vote. And it may have a major immediate political importance for the second round of voting.
Yeltsin told a nationwide television audience today that to vote for Zyuganov would amount to a step backward. His aides were reported to be signalling that the campaign will focus on small towns and provincial localities. But would this be enough?
According to the law, the run-off should take place within three weeks. The race is likely to be hard-fought. And the result is far from certain.