Election puts KGB man within reach of Kremlin

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Vladimir Putin, acting president and ex-KGB officer, was last night leading in the election to be next head of the Kremlin.But early exit polls suggested he may get less than the 50 per cent necessary to avert a run-off election after a surprisingly strong showing by his Communist rival.

All day Russians, battered by disorder and economic decline, streamed into polling booths from the Pacific to the Baltic. According to exit polls Mr Putin, as predicted, won close to 50 per cent of the vote but Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, was doing better than expected, with 28 per cent. Alexander Veshnyakov, chief of the election commission, said: "Much depends on the bigger northern and western regions. If it goes on like it is now, a second round is very probable."

Mr Putin said, as he cast his ballot, that he was voting "for the future of Russia". Many voters said they admired Mr Putin, who has been acting president since he succeeded Boris Yeltsin on New Year's Eve, for his intelligence and vigour. But they generally added that they did not know much about him and were doubtful about the ability of any of the candidates to solve Russia's problems. "He is a forceful personality and we don't have much to complain about the way he has behaved since he moved into the Kremlin," said Igor Mishakin after voting in the town of Odintsovo outside Moscow. "Most people have forgotten how he was appointed and don't see him as Yeltsin's apprentice."

Mr Putin has sought to give the impression that his election will mark a break with the corruption and cronyism of Mr Yeltsin's years. Yesterday many Russians said he was decisive and tough, citing his role in launching the war in Chechnya. Others said he was untested and his election would mean no change. "He is a new, an unidentified flying object," said Sergei, who did not want to give his family name and who had voted for Mr Zyuganov. Sergei said "under communism I had everything, like free education and medical benefits. Now I have nothing but problems."

Polling was brisk in Odintsovo and and elsewhere. By early evening turn-out had exceeded the 50 per cent needed for a valid election, though some people said they had voted against all 11 candidates. Apart from Mr Putin and Mr Zyuganov, only the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal Grigory Yavlinsky are expected to get much support.

Some voters expressed misgivings about Mr Putin's KGB past. Semyon Andreyevich, a retired army colonel who was voting for Mr Zyuganov, said: "Putin is a dark horse and also KGB. We don't want another 1937 here." Nevertheless, Mr Putin appears to have succeeded in presenting himself very much as his own man and not one who will be a prisoner of his old connections in the Yeltsin Kremlin.

"He doesn't have to be held up by his entourage," said Victor Averen, a local politician. "He belongs to nobody." Mr Putin emerged from obscurity last year when he was Mr Yeltsin's surprise choice as prime minister. A native of St Petersburg, he was trained as a lawyer and spent 16 years in the KGB, including five years in East Germany.

He has fought a skilful election campaign, relying on the Chechen war to suggest to voters that he is man who can act decisively but remaining vague on how he will handle economic and social problems.

If the election does go to a second round in the middle of next month, Mr Putin is still likely to win, but the impression of easy dominance by a man who wants to get on with the job of ruling Russia may be dented. Many Russians resent the way in which their choice in the election was pre-empted by the resignation of Mr Yeltsin and elevation of Mr Putin. Once in the Kremlin he was able to use the power of the incumbency, the control of state television, which gave his campaign slavish coverage, and the popularity of the Chechen war to dominate the campaign.