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Bullish Yeltsin targets Communist voters' country

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 now 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 the document, the Russians have agreed to withdraw their troops from the war- battered 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 the President's now almost-triumphant bandwagon rumbled into the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, where he insisted that he firmly expects to win Sunday's election outright, without going to a run-off. "There will be no second round," he said, before repeating his campaign stunt of giving away money to potential voters - this time, funds for two schools.

Mr Yeltsin's bullish confidence appears to be rooted in the figures compiled by his advisers which suggest he has seized the lead in a clutch of prize areas, some of which voted for the Communist Party in December's parliamentary elections. According to Sergei Filatov, a key figure in Mr Yeltsin's campaign, their analysts have 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, told the Independent that 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.

The science of 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 fevered political cauldron. But their figures may offer clues to the centres that the President is likely to target as the race gathers momentum towards an almost certain run-off in July.

Among key battle grounds, 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 that 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 that this group is shrinking, and gave Mr Yeltsin between 34.5 and 37 per cent, eight points or more ahead of Mr Zyuganov, with between 26 and 15.9 per cent.

But the Yeltsin camp's figures also suggested some other trends afoot: Mr Zhirinovsky, who stunned the world when his party came second in December but seems since to have divebombed, is making a last-minute rally. The liberal economist Mr Grigory Yavlinsky has moved ahead of Mr Yeltsin in Kaliningrad. And General Alexander Lebed is moving upwards slightly.

Yesterday the President's handlers were being careful not to seem too complacent, despite the up-beat mood of their boss. They were busy stoking up an old story that the Communist party has 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 to check that their enemies do not cheat. If nothing else it will be an eventful, and rather crowded, day.