Boris smoothes path to run-off

Russian elections: Turn-out crucial to boost President's 2-point lead

With the first round of the Russian presidential election out of the way, and a modest victory under his belt, Boris Yeltsin yesterday switched his attention to two crucial tactics to ensure he wins the run- off: boosting the turn-out, and doing a deal with the non-Communist candidates who are no longer in the contest.

With almost all the vote counted from Sunday's poll, the President could take some comfort from having successfully netted 34.82 per cent - just over two points ahead of his rival, Gennady Zyuganov, leader of a Communist- nationalist coalition, who had 32.13 per cent.

Although Mr Yeltsin's lead is several points less than the Kremlin had hoped for, it represents a remarkable political feat, given his deep unpopularity six months ago.

However, he was at pains not to sound triumphalist: "No one should take it easy in the hope that everything will work out of its own accord," he said in a television broadcast.

Last night the attention of both the Kremlin and the Communist high command was on how to convert their figures into enough votes to win the second round next month.

Both sides announced plans to approach the main third party candidates for negotiations, but there was no doubt about who was first on their visiting list: General Alexander Lebed, the nationalist candidate and retired paratrooper who polled an unexpected 10 million votes - 14.71 per cent.

The Kremlin, which has been wooing the general for a while, said that Mr Yeltsin met him to discuss "ways of possible co-operation", without saying what these were. It is clear, though, the Mr Yeltsin plans to offer him a top job, possibly that of first deputy prime minister.

Although the general has ruled out working with the Communists, Mr Zyuganov was also in hot pursuit, flourishing the possibility of a deal and pointing out that any attempt by him to join the existing government would be tantamount to deserting his voters. The Communist leader also, accurately, remarked that voters "are not serfs, they cannot be inherited".

General Lebed is not the only candidate who suddenly found himself with a surplus of dancing partners. The President's team were yesterday reconsidering talks with Grigory Yavlinksy, the liberal economist, whose vote stood at 7.4 per cent.

The renowned eye surgeon, Svyatoslav Fyodorov (who won less than 1 per cent), was also being seen as a target in what Mr Yeltsin's chief campaign strategist, Sergei Filatov, called an attempt to "create a unified movement of democratic, reformist forces".

This group did not, however, include the ultra-nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who attracted 5.8 per cent, or, for that matter, the lonely figure of Mikhail Gorbachev, who persuaded only 0.5 per cent of the voting public to support his comeback.

The next few weeks will be a tricky period for Mr Yeltsin. For more than three months he has scarcely put a foot wrong, despite being under non-stop public scrutiny as his bandwagon raced around the country, distributing largesse. With victory in sight, there is a risk his team, which is divided, will make an error.

Public outrage over the war in Chechyna seems to have cooled after Mr Yeltsin successfully coaxed the rebel leadership into the Kremlin, signed a ceasefire, and then held its top man, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, hostage while he went to the republic. Although negotiations have since limped along further, the conflict remains a political liability. Another mass hostage-taking, or a repeat of the farcical episode when the Russians bombarded a Dagestani village in January, would be damaging.

They are also worried about the turn-out in the second round. There is a risk that Russians are election-weary, especially as many are clearly unenthusiastic about both candidates. If the turn-out drops to 60 per cent, the core Communist vote may be enough to pass the 50 per cent winning post.

In an effort to reduce the risk of a no-show, Mr Yeltsin was yesterday reportedly planning to ask the State Duma (lower house) to hold the race on 3 July, a Wednesday, which would be declared a national holiday.

But even if this move founders, the odds are strong that he will serve a second term in the Kremlin, despite his suspect health and a patchy record. Although this will be welcomed in the West, it will not be a cause for celebration among liberals who, like many Russians, regard the President as a lesser of two evils rather than a champion of democracy.

Shortly before Sunday's vote, Mr Yeltsin vowed to make sweeping changes in his government, although he said he would not be bringing back the young economists who earlier oversaw the reform and privatisation process, for example, Anatoly Chubais.

None of this is likely to lessen fears that a victorious Mr Yeltsin, who cannot by law run again, will lapse into the isolation that characterised his administration last year.

How they polled

Boris Yeltsin 25,147,036 34.82%

Gennady Zyuganov 23,206,245 32.13%

Alexander Lebed 10,627,098 14.71%

Grigory Yavlinsky 5,349,802 7.41%

Vladimir Zhirinovsky 4,218,889 5.84%

Svyatoslav Fyodorov 672,876 0.93%

Mikhail Gorbachev 365,124 0.51%

Martin Shakkum 260,897 0.36%

Yuri Vlasov 143,777 0.20%

Vladimir Bryntsalov 116,966 0.16%

Preliminary official results with around 98 per cent of counted. Total is less than 100 per cent because voters could register a vote against all candidates Source: Reuter

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