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Interest High In Runoff Among Russians On U.S. West Coast

Bellingham, Wash., June 21 (RFE/RL) - Interest in the runoff of the Russian presidential election is particularly strong along the West Coast of the United States, where ties to Russia extend back to Tsarist times, when Russian entrepreneurs set up outposts from Alaska to Northern California in quest of seal and otter pelts.

Today, a sizable Russian population lives in the four states bordering the Pacific Ocean and ranging, from north to south, from Alaska and Washington through Oregon to California. As an example of the interest, the periodical "Economic Life of the Russian Far East" -- published since 1991 simultaneously in Vladivostok, Russia, and Seattle, Washington -- produced a special edition on the June 16 election, offering its mostly business readers the latest results as they became available. The results were front-page news across the United States. The Russian consulate in Seattle reported doing a brisk business in collecting ballots from Russians living around Washington state and looks forward to even more voters with the stakes heightened by the two-man nature of the do-or-die runoff vote between President Boris Yeltsin and the Communist Party's Gennady Zyuganov. For the first round, some Russian voters drove more than four hours to participate in the first free election of their country's national leader. Local papers in Washington state also carried a picture of an Aeroflot pilot -- caught by his job in Fairbanks, Alaska, on election day -- casting his ballot in the United States. This was a photograph impossible to have even imagined in the days of the Cold War. The Russians who have emigrated to this country did so not because of the reforms launched after the collapse of communism but because of the previous oppression by the Soviet regime. Many of the estimated one thousand formerly Soviet citizens who have settled in and around Bellingham, Washington, in the northwest corner of the United States, are Pentacostal Christians who left the Soviet Union to seek religious tolerance. Clearly, their sentiments support Yeltsin's re-election and not Zyuganov with his campaign's echoes of a return to times past. Walter Ilyin of Bellingham, pastor of a Christian congregation that counts several hundred Russians, said the members seem to be relieved that Yeltsin led the race into next month's two-man runoff. Now, he said, they are focusing with great concern on the outcome of that race. "Many of these people have family and relatives still in Russia,'' Ilyin said. But, he added, he knows of few within the congregation who actually traveled the 150 kilometers to Seattle last Sunday to vote. This did not surprise him, however. He said they had stayed home not out of apathy, but out of a lack of experience in voting. Many of his congregation, Ilyin explained, had been unable to participate -- even if they had wanted to -- in the virtually uncontested Soviet elections. So they have never cast a ballot. Now the attention of expatriate Russians turns toward the July runoff between Yeltsin and Zyuganov. It is a race they view as being between a Russian future that offers only hope for those they left behind, and a Russian past that, for them, meant only repression and want -- enough to have caused them to leave when they could.