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Bullish Yeltsin scents poll victory

Boris Yeltsin, riding high on the strength of flattering polls, scored a double-barrelled success yesterday. His spin-doctors flourished evidence that the President is ahead in his fight for re-election in some of the most sought-after, voter-rich territory in Russia. And a crucial agreement was signed in Chechnya.

Under it, the Russians have agreed to withdraw their troops from the republic by the end of August in return for the disarmament of the Chechen fighters, a deal which marks another crucial step towards Mr Yeltsin's promise to end the conflict before election day on Sunday.

The move came as his bandwagon rumbled into the southern city of Rostov- on-Don, where he said he expects to win Sunday's election outright, without going to a run-off. His confidence appears to be rooted in figures compiled by advisers which suggest he has seized the lead in a clutch of prize areas, some of which voted for the Communists in December's parliamentary elections. Sergei Filatov, a key figure in Mr Yeltsin's campaign, said their analysts concluded that his ratings have pushed ahead in the far east, the north-west, the Volga valley, the Ural mountains, and western and eastern Siberia.

As examples of these areas, Mr Filatov, a former chief of staff to the President, said they were hoping to win the Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod, and Perm regions; the Krasnoyarsk and Primorsky territories and the Bashkortostan Republic - despite past Communist successes in these areas. Each contains a healthy parcel of voters - of around 1 million or more, based on last year's turn-out.

Election-information gathering is almost as unsophisticated in Russia as its fledgling democracy and the President's strategists are as prone to being partisan as anyone else operating in the political cauldron. But their figures may offer clues to the centres the President is likely to target as the race gathers momentum towards an almost certain run-off in July.

Among key battlegrounds, according to Mr Filatov, are the north Caucasus; central Russia, including the ancient city of Vladimir, 200 miles east of Moscow; and the central "black-earth" country, which includes Lipetsk, in what is also usually seen as "red-belt", or Communist, territory.

Mr Filatov said Mr Yeltsin's ratings should go over the 35-40 per cent mark this week, giving him a comfortable first- round victory but not enough to win outright. But 20-25 per cent of the electorate were still undecided. Three recent polls suggested this group is shrinking, and gave Mr Yeltsin 34.5 to 37 per cent, eight points or more ahead of his Communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov, with between 26 and 15.9 per cent. But the Yeltsin camp's figures also suggested some other trends afoot: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who stunned the world when his ultra-nationalist party came second in December but seems since to have divebombed, is making a last-minute rally. The liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky has moved ahead of Mr Yeltsin in Kaliningrad. And General Alexander Lebed is moving upwards slightly.

Yesterday the President's handlers were careful not to seem too complacent. They were stoking up an old story that the Communists had set up armed formations ready to go into action if the elections do not go their way. To counter this, the streets will be flooded with three times as many police as usual, almost as many as the number of observers from the two main rival camps who plan to descend on the 96,000 voting stations. If nothing else it will be an eventful, and rather crowded, day.