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Russia: Voters Elect New President

Russians cast ballots yesterday to elect the second Russian president since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Vladimir Putin, who became acting president after Boris Yeltsin resigned last December, was teh winner. The Kremlin's main fear -- that a low turnout could invalidate the vote -- turned out to be unfounded.

Moscow: 27 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- While some Russian politicians spoke out publicly in favor of Putin in polling stations, Moscow voters were not unanimous in their support for the acting candidate.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was one of the last to jump on the Putin bandwagon just two weeks ago. After casting his vote in Moscow yesterday, Luzhkov forgot all rules forbidding election propaganda and once more called for voters to support Putin. Luzhkov said Putin is the man to keep Russia from "revolutionary shocks." And he said Putin already has proposals to strengthen the center's influence in the regions.

Democratic candidate Grigory Yavlinsky called on citizens to participate in an election that would determine Russia's future. Communist Gennady Zyuganov called on people to vote to prevent [thieving capitalism] from winning the election.

Former President Boris Yeltsin also made a smiling appearance.

"[I wish] Russia, the new president success. That Russia goes on like she has been going: forward. Everyone is waiting for changes. But the main course has to stay, the course of reforms."

Putin's over 50 percent approval rate left little doubt about the outcome. But Russian authorities seemed to get increasingly worried about a possible turnout rate of under 50 percent, which would invalidate the vote. Over the past weeks, clips on television aimed at boosting voter participation showed ordinary Russians saying why it is important to vote. It ended at about 69 percent.

On Friday, Putin, the Orthodox patriarch, and the Muslim mufti urged Russians to vote in several minute long televised appeals. Patriarch Aleksei II called voting an act of responsibility any religious person should accomplish. Putin said that March 26 would mark the start of new times and that citizens should fulfill their "constitutional duty."

Several hours before the polls closed, the Central Electoral Commission declared the presidential vote valid, meaning that more than 50 percent of Russia's 108 million voters had cast ballots.

In Moscow, one third of voters had cast their ballots at mid-day with at least six more hours to go. But polling institutes expect results in Moscow to be less supportive of Putin than in the rest of Russia. In the past, larger cities show more support for what is perceived as the traditional "democratic" candidates like Grigory Yavlinsky.

While reflecting Putin's high popularity, conversations with Muscovites outside a centrally located polling station show that many have misgivings about Putin. Maria Dmitrievna, a kindergarten teacher, was an observer at polling station number 119. She does not support Putin but said she decided to become an observer for his camp "in order to make sure that if he is elected that it is a fair election and that it is indeed the expression of the people's will." Maria fears that Putin could become a dictator.

"I'm afraid that that course Russia started on, the democratic course, could be blocked. There were examples like that in history like Stalin, Hitler, where small men who governed, so there's always a possibility of them becoming tyrants. The aggression in Chechnya already says much about the style of his work, his attitude towards power, towards the country. Of course he wants Russia to be a great, a powerful country, but I think that the course he chose will not bring about greatness and power. Because aggression only provokes aggression."

Aza Likhichnik was a moderator on Soviet television but was fired under Yeltsin. She supports the communist Zyuganov: "All the time it's Putin, Putin? Why? Me, for example, I [like] Zyuganov. He's for the people, the simple people, like me. For pensioners. And then we know what we had [under communism] but we don't have the slightest idea of where they're taking us to."

The co-president of the liberal Democratic Russia movement, Elena Estomina, says the three months that candidates had to prepare for elections never gave a real opponent the time to emerge.

"This is not an election. This is just voting. A plebiscite. [I'm] for [Samara governor Konstantin] Titov. First he's smart and he practices [what he preaches.]"

A well-to-do man and woman in Italian designer clothes were among few voters to tell RFE/RL that they chose to vote for Putin. Andrey Vadimovich and Lyubov Vassilyevna say that Putin's call for dictatorship of the law and legal reform would give Russian businesses a chance to work legally instead of dodging inapplicable laws.

"We're hoping for stabilization. And since we're in business a bit, we want taxes to go down of course. So that taxes become realistic, so that it becomes realistic to pay them. So that we don't have to hide our [income] and hold a double accountancy. That [they] stop forcing honest people to cheat. That's what we want."

Andrey says that Putin's past inspires fear in corrupted bureaucrats:

"All those bribe-takers, all those bureaucrats got scared and started wagging their tails [in his support]. That was obvious right away that they're afraid of him. And that's already good because everyone stopped being afraid of anyone. And a little fear is necessary because the way these [people] are looting the regions, it's horrible. And since he's a former [KGB] man he's got a file on everyone of them, and they're all afraid of him. So he should just take care of them all. Before, the KGB held them all in hand."

Stanislav Golubev is also a businessman. He voted for Grigory Yavlinsky but says that Putin's election would not bring about any catastrophic radical move because authorities realize that investments -- both Russian and Foreign -- need a moderate course, he says.