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Russia: Putin Wins As Expected

Vladimir Putin walked away with an outright victory in the first round of Russia's presidential election yesterday. In an election with few surprises, the turnout was almost 70 percent -- much higher than in December's parliamentary elections. RFE/RL's Tuck Wesolowsky reports.

Prague, 27 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Putin has been elected president of Russia.

That outcome was never really in doubt. Instead, the question was whether he would win with more than 50 percent of the vote, so as to avoid a runoff. He did.

The Central Election Commission declared Putin the winner after preliminary results gave him more than 52 percent of the vote with 94 percent of the votes counted. Election commission chief Aleksandr Veshnyakov said the results will not change significantly as final votes are counted.

With the election lacking much in the way of drama, there were concerns voter turnout might be low. But election officials said the voter turnout was about 69 percent -- well over the half of registered voters necessary for the vote to be deemed legitimate and almost the same as the turnout in the hotly contested 1996 presidential race.

Putin's election officially brings to a close the era of Boris Yeltsin, the only president Russia has known since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yeltsin named Putin acting president in his surprise resignation at the end of December.

Putin's closest rival was Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, who narrowly lost to Yeltsin back in 1996. As predicted by most polls, Zyuganov took second place, with 30 percent. In a distant third was Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, with 5.8 percent.

The 47-year-old Putin appeared relaxed yesterday while casting his ballot in Moscow with his wife Lyudmila, and said he would spend the rest of the day at a Russian sauna, flaying himself in the traditional Russian manner with birch branches.

"I will go to the countryside. I will go to the sauna and hit myself with birch branches. Then I'll come back to headquarters to find out how the elections are going, and I'll go to sleep, because tomorrow is Monday, a difficult day, and I have to go to work."

After being declared the winner, Putin told reporters there is a deep level of dissatisfaction in Russia, but he warned voters not to expect quick miracles from his future administration.

Putin, a former KGB agent, has won solid backing among Russians, largely for his military campaign in Chechnya. He has not articulated any sort of concrete economic program -- instead, he vowed to create a "dictatorship of the law." That message seems to have resonated with average Russians, fed up with corruption, scandal, falling living standards, and the mafia. Time and again Russians expressed a desire for order.

Meanwhile, Zyuganov appealed to Russians to renew society and rid the country of what he called criminal capitalism.

"We have to move away from the nightmare of the last ten years, away from outlaw, criminal capitalism, and develop and renew our country with confidence."

Zyuganov also accused the government of falsifying results to give Putin victory in the first round.

Polling began Saturday evening in Russia's Far East and didn't end until polls closed 11 time zones away in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

About 1,000 international monitors observed the election, including 300 officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. But the OSCE sent no monitors to Chechnya, where voting was conducted despite ongoing fighting between Russian forces and Chechen rebels. It said the election campaign in Chechnya had not been conducted in line with international standards.

Putin defended the decision to hold elections in the republic, saying he believed it was important for the people of Chechnya to have the chance to vote.

Moscow hopes the republic's participation in the poll will demonstrate Chechnya's restoration to the Russian Federation.

Strict security measures were in force across Russia Sunday for fear of terrorist attacks by Chechen rebels. The Interior Ministry deployed 15,000 troops to guard 336 polling stations in the breakaway republic. But Russian military reported no major disturbance at the polls.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.