Putin scores outright win in Russia

Yeltsin's successor avoids runoff election with 52.5% of vote

Opponents allege fraud

Margin narrower than expected with Communist vote 30%

March 27, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Vladimir V. Putin won an outright victory today in Russia's presidential elections, avoiding a runoff even as his opponents charged widespread fraud after long delays in the vote count.

At 10 a.m. today, with 94.08 percent of the vote counted, Putin had been credited with 52.57 percent, enough to claim election as Russia's second president.

Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader, made a strong showing for second place, with 29.45 percent. The liberal Grigory Yavlinsky did much worse than he expected, at 5.85 percent. Eight other candidates were far behind.

Zyuganov, who believes he was the victim of fraud when he ran for president in 1996 against Boris N. Yeltsin, said last night that his supporters would insist on examining all reported poll results.

Despite his strong showing, Russian television reported at 1 a.m. that Zyuganov had carried only five of Russia's 89 regions, which would be a remarkable turnabout in the so-called Red Belt, where the Communists have always been strong.

Zyuganov said the Communist vote was more than 40 percent. In Omsk, Novosibirsk and other areas, he said, he was in the lead. "Total falsification is going on in Chechnya, Dagestan, Kursk, Lipetsk, Tatarstan," he said.

Zyuganov said one polling place in Tatarstan experienced a growth in registered voters of 100 percent yesterday.

Yavlinsky, accused on national television last week of acting in the interests of Israel and of being the preferred candidate of homosexuals, presented yesterday what he said appeared to be an example of fraud. The list of registered voters in the city of Ulan Ude grew by 14,000, he said, between the time the polls opened at 8 a.m. and its closing 12 hours later.

Election officials compiled votes from across 11 time zones. They said 68 percent of Russia's 108 million voters cast ballots, making the election valid.

The first returns, from Russia's Far East, gave Putin 46 percent of the vote, which would have meant a runoff, and it matched early results from Moscow and St. Petersburg.

But after these figures came out, hours went by without a significant update. Then, at 11: 45 p.m., nearly four hours after polls closed in European Russia, new returns from St. Petersburg showed Putin with 62.3 percent of the vote in his native city.

St. Petersburg is under the control of Gov. Vladimir Yakovlev, once an enemy of Putin's who is now fighting for political survival. Yakovlev, who many believe could face criminal prosecution if he loses office, endorsed Putin in the last weeks of the campaign and did all he could to deliver the city.

At 1 a.m., new national returns began to come in. By 2 a.m., the country was inching toward St. Petersburg's example.

"Until recently, taking part in elections seemed like a nightmare to me. If there is no runoff, I'll be a happy man," Putin said at his campaign headquarters, where he arrived after midnight.

The election campaign was lackluster, with Putin appearing unassailable. A former KGB agent who was selected by Yeltsin as prime minister in August and became acting president with Yeltsin's resignation Dec. 31, he has in a few months established firm control over Russian politics.

His pursuit of the war in Chechnya has been well received, and he has cemented his political popularity by using oil revenues to increase pensions and salaries for doctors and teachers.

But he is not a man who inspires personal affection. He came out of the seamy political milieu of St. Petersburg, and public support for his idea of a strong state is counterbalanced by a growing unease over the prospect of a protracted guerrilla war in Chechnya and what could become a semipermanent crackdown on dissenting voices in the media.

In the Moscow suburb of Odintsovo, a place that gave more votes to "against all" than to any candidate in December's parliamentary elections, some of this ambivalence found voice among voters.

Tatiana Kaulbars, 65, said she had very bad feelings about the war in Chechnya, but sees no alternative to the war or to Putin.

"We gave up Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia -- and Belarus and Ukraine and Central Asia," she said, referring to the former Soviet republics that became independent in 1991. "Why should they split Chechnya from Russia?

"But what is really going on? Maybe somebody needs this war. but our children are being killed there. This is incomprehensible. But we can't leave it where it is. We have to pursue it to the end."

Putin, she said, hasn't presented a program, but at least he looks like someone in charge.

Lyubov Vaskina, a fencing instructor, said she believes Putin's Chechnya policy is correct.

But he didn't get her vote.

"I was hesitant," she said. "At the last moment, I decided to vote against everybody, though I sort of like Putin and almost voted for him. But we don't know him well at all."

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