Voters appear to be giving Yeltsin victory Foe charges fraud in vote-counting in Russia's Far East

April 26, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Boris N. Yeltsin, battered and beaten just a month ago by his foes in the Russian Congress, seemed on the verge of a major victory last night as millions of ordinary Russians turned out for him one more time and gave him their votes in a nationwide referendum.

The combative Russian president, locked in a protracted and bitter fight with opponents of his sweeping economic reforms, has consistently drawn his strength from the remarkably unshakable support he enjoys among the Russian people, and yesterday's vote looked certain to give him new authority.

Official results in this sprawling country won't be tallied until tomorrow at the earliest, but exit polls and a few early returns showed Mr. Yeltsin easily carrying the first and most important question of the referendum, which asked simply: Do you support the president?

One exit poll, by the Russian Center for Public Opinion and Market Research, showed Mr. Yeltsin getting 59.6 percent of the vote in the Far East and Siberia, and 78 percent in Moscow. Another poll, by the Public Opinion Foundation, showed 74 percent of voters in 16 cities backing the president.

On the other three questions in the referendum -- about support for economic and political reform -- Mr. Yeltsin appeared to be doing well also, and this immediately raised the issue of what he will do with his victory and how his opponents will react.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, the chairman of the Congress of People's Deputies, and other legislative leaders made it plain yesterday that they won't leave the scene quietly. Before the polls had closed, Mr. Khasbulatov was charging fraud in the vote-counting in Russia's Far East.

For his part, Mr. Yeltsin has promised that if he prevails in the referendum he will immediately push for a new constitution, which would replace the Soviet-era Congress with a smaller and less powerful legislature.

Mr. Khasbulatov said yesterday that no such move would happen.

Thus the stage is set for a more intense -- and potentially more dangerous -- chapter in the bitter struggle between the president and his conservative opponents.

But if the true numbers match yesterday's polling predictions, Mr. Yeltsin will be able to claim the support of the people in his quest to move the country further away from the old Soviet system.

Majority is hopeful

The early results suggest that, through nearly a year and a half of painful, wrenching economic changes, which have produced few visible benefits so far, a majority of Russians have kept their faith in eventual improvement.

The second question in the referendum asked voters if they supported the president's course of economic reform -- a rather vague and non-binding question that seemed to invite a negative response. But here also, he appeared last night to stand a good chance of winning the nation's endorsement.

One exit poll gave him a 67 percent approval rating on this question -- or two out of every three voters.

The results suggest a large reservoir of trust for Mr. Yeltsin, and a certain measure of hope for the future.

At the same time, voters turned against the Congress and overwhelmingly supported a move for early legislative elections -- although this question, unlike the first two, could only be carried with the support of a majority of all registered voters, rather than simply of those voting.

It appeared to be falling short of such an absolute majority, even though in Moscow, for instance, a poll showed that 90 percent of voters wanted new elections.

But the turnout was running at only 55 percent to 65 percent, according to reports.

A national exit poll showed 78 percent of those voting to be in favor of new legislative elections.

At the same time a question on an early presidential election seemed headed for an easy defeat, another sign of support for Mr. Yeltsin.

Reservoir of trust

"I trust Yeltsin," Galina Astafyeva, a Muscovite who works in the police museum, said after voting last night. "Maybe Yeltsin makes mistakes, but I don't see anyone better. His biggest mistake has been wasting time trying to make compromises with the Congress. It's time for the Congress to go."

"Of course life is harder, but we shall overcome these difficulties," said Valentina Panfilova, who brought her four-year-old son Vladimir with her to Polling Station No. 4, in a big brick school near the center of Moscow. "I trust the president."

"I'm for Yeltsin. I want to live normally. It's an elementary answer," said Yuri Viktorov, 31. "I was born under Khrushchev. I grew up under Brezhnev. It's just easier to breathe now."

Yesterday's referendum marks, at the very least, a turning point in the political wrangle that has grown increasingly vehement and distracting since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

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