THE SURPRISINGLY strong No. 3 finish of retired Gen. Alexander Lebed in Sunday's presidential elections underscores how unhappy many Russians are about their country's situation. By not voting in larger numbers for the second-place finisher, communist Gennady Zyuganov, they signaled they do not want the return of Marxist-Leninist rule. But many are not satisfied with the first-round winner either, blaming President Boris N. Yeltsin for economic hardships, crime, social instability and war in Chechnya.
Throughout Russian history, the strong man -- whether he was called a czar, first secretary or president -- has always projected more of his personality and values on the way things are done than is common for chief executives in Western countries. General Lebed, a tough-talking teetotaler who pledged to restore order to Russia, fits this mold for voters tired of the drinking bouts, bizarre behavior and cronyism Mr. Yeltsin has often exhibited.
As Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Zyuganov began preparing for their duel in the conclusive second round of voting that might come as soon as July 3, each wasted no time in courting General Lebed. Both finalists dangled a high cabinet post before the Afghan war veteran's eyes as a prize of his support of their cause.
General Lebed, 46, will have a difficult choice to make. He despises Mr. Yeltsin (whom he once described as "a minus") but does not want to be associated with the communists, either. Yet many of his political goals -- tough law-and-order policies and returning Russia to its big-power status -- are closer to those advocated by communists than the Yeltsin camp.
Even if General Lebed reaches an accommodation with either of the presidential finalists, there is no guarantee that the millions of people who voted him will follow his lead. Since his political party did dismally in parliamentary elections, it seems they supported General Lebed because of his perceived leadership instincts and personal integrity -- not because of his political views, which remain sketchy.
President Yeltsin, who only months ago badly trailed in opinion polls, staged an impressive comeback to win in the first round. If he hopes to defeat Mr. Zyuganov, though, he will need extraordinary powers of personal and political persuasion -- and a good amount of luck.