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Press Review: The Russian Presidential Election

Prague, June 18 (RFE/RL) - Western press commentary focuses today on Sunday's first round in the Russian presidential election. Incumbent Boris Yeltsin won about 35 percent of the vote with Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov winning slightly more than 32 percent. Retired General Alexander Lebed, who won more than 14 percent, is expected to play a key role in determining who will win the run-off and the presidency. Yeltsin said today that he has gained Lebed's support and named him head of his security council.

The New York Times says today in an editorial: "...the contest for the Russian presidency comes down to two men shaped by Communism -- Boris Yeltsin, the apostate who broke with the Soviet faith, and Gennady Zyuganov, still the acolyte. That seems fitting, for the voting patterns in the Russian election show a country still struggling to escape its past, and at least a generation away from making that leap." The editorial continues: "It was clear from Sunday's vote that Russia is suspended uneasily between Communism and capitalism, and its people divided about whether to step forward or back. Russians are groping to find a political and economic system that combines the stability of Communism with the freedom of capitalism. So far the country has not found an answer, or settled on a candidate. Anything else would be surprising after seven decades of suffocating Soviet rule." The Times concludes: "Yeltsin would seem to have the advantage in assembling a winning coalition. The gravitational pull of Communism is strong, but declining, and Zyuganov must overcome fears that he would restore a dictatorship. But whatever the outcome, Russia's past still has a grip on its future, and will for years to come."

David Hoffman writes today in a news analysis in the Washington Post: "the first-round results of Russia's presidential election have made clear that between President Boris Yeltsin and Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov lies a mass of centrist voters who are dissatisfied both with the status quo represented by Yeltsin and the radical reversal offered by Zyuganov, and who must now decide between them in a runoff." Hoffman continues: "The sharp polarization of the Russian electorate between reformers and anti-reformers - or between those satisfied with the status quo, and those who are not - has made it difficult for centrists to take root."

Carol Williams assesses the election today in the Los Angeles Times saying: " . . . Complacency and overconfidence are Yeltsin's biggest foes in the runoff that will determine the face and fate of Russia as it enters the 21st century." Williams writes: ". . . Whether Yeltsin can win will depend on how well he does in galvanizing his natural constituency of the burgeoning business community, young people and those with sharp memories of Stalinist repressions. But he must also win over enough of the 34 percent of Russian voters who chose unsuccessful contenders or none to retain his edge over Zyuganov."

John Thornhill writes today in the Financial Times . . . . "Mr. Yeltsin's aides believe the key to victory is in mobilising a higher turnout than the 70 percent that voted on Sunday. Mr. Yeltsin has already appeared at a series of rock concerts to enthuse young voters." Thornhill continues: " . . . As part of the plan to increase the turnout, Mr. Yeltsin's team is pressing for the second round to be held on Wednesday July 3 which will be declared a national holiday. They fear that many pro-Yeltsin voters are out at their country dachas at the weekends when elections are traditionally held and would not make it back to the cities in time to vote."

Michael R. Gordon writes about Lebed today in a news analysis in the New York Times. Gordon says: ". . . the retired general has been caricatured as a strident nationalist determined to rebuild the Russian empire on the ashes of the old Soviet Union. But judged by his platform and his manner, Alexander Lebed is more Colin Powell than Vladimir Zhirinovsky. An Afghan war hero whose face bears the scars of a boxing career, Lebed is well known in the West for his impolitic prediction that the Soviet Union would be partially recreated." Gordon continues: "But it is Lebed's steely independence, his reputation of incorruptibility, and his image of being above the seamy world of ordinary politics that endeared him to millions of Russian voters. . . An alliance between Yeltsin and the paratrooper-turned-politican would seem to hold decided advantages for both. It could help insulate Yeltsin against charges of corruption and favoritism that have dogged his campaign, while giving Lebed real power, as well as a base to nurture his future presidential ambitions."

Mathias Brueggmann writes a commentary today in the German newspaper Die Welt. He says: " . . . In December General Lebed made no headway with his party in the parliamentary elections and only secured election to the Duma as an individual deputy. In only the second free presidential elections in more than 1,000 years of Russian history, he emerged as the surprise winner to end all surprise winners." Brueggmann continues: "Lebed embodied more than any other candidate the Russians' desire for truth and order. The 148 million Russians have been lied to for too long, first by the Bolsheviks, and then largely robbed of democracy, the ideals of which have still only been implemented in their rudiments in what is a gigantic country. What is more, a rough, semi-legal free market has been accompanied by chaos, destruction and decline." Brueggmann concludes: "Russia is a country torn apart once more. . . . The Russians have certainly not handed their votes over on a plate, and that might be a first step on Russia's long road to democracy. So once again, in the world's largest country, the question is: quo vadis (eds: where are you going), Russia?"

Lee Hockstader, writing today in a news analysis in the Washington Post, says: ". . . Political analysts here (in Moscow) say that if the Communists were unable to broaden their appeal and moderate their message over the last six months, it may prove even more difficult for them to do so in time for Mr. Zyuganov to overtake President Boris N. Yeltsin in the second-round ballot early in July."