Kremlin stands firm against the crimson tide

HELEN WOMACK

Moscow

The red tide rose on Russia's Pacific coast late on Sunday night but by the time it had washed across the country to lap against the walls of the Kremlin yesterday it had lost much of its power to terrify the occupant of the red-brick towers.

Preliminary results from the Far East, which is seven time zones away from the capital, showed the Communists and the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky romping home in Sunday's parliamentary election. But the closer the count came to Moscow, the more reformers began to pick up votes, until it was clear President Boris Yeltsin would face a mixed assembly hardly more hostile to him than the outgoing Duma.

After two democratic parliamentary elections since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a pattern is beginning to emerge.

In both cases the glubinka, or depths, the seemingly endless Russian provinces, have voted in a conservative mood but balance has been restored by the big cities to the west, especially Moscow, which is an island of increasing prosperity in a sea of rural poverty.

In Russia the city limits more or less mark the end of civilisation. As little as 100 miles from Moscow, many country people live in 19th-century conditions, taking their water from wells, cutting down trees for firewood. Inevitably they are envious of Muscovites and other city-dwellers who, while still struggling, are starting to enjoy the fruits of the free market.

Clearly the tiny minority of super-rich, cruising the streets of Moscow in their Western limousines, were going to vote to preserve their new lifestyles. But the nearly 20 per cent vote for the government party, Our Home is Russia, which topped the poll in the capital, suggested a far wider band of Muscovites already felt they had a stake in reforms. The liberal Yabloko grouping also did well, tying with the Communists for second place in Moscow.

Two hundred miles to the north-east, Yabloko, headed by the whizz-kid economist Grigory Yavlinsky, looked as if it had won in the historic city of Yaroslavl. It had also done well in St Petersburg, Russia's traditional "window on the West". The former imperial capital has developed trade links with neighbouring Finland and the shops there are well-stocked with Nordic products.

The big Communist vote came from the Far East where, for example, naval officers are angry about the decline of the Pacific Fleet. Recently there were reports of naval conscripts dying of starvation there.

Support for the Communists also came from Siberia, including the mining region of Kemerovo, which once nearly brought down Mikhail Gorbachev with a strike over lack of soap in the pit-head baths and which has now punished Mr Yeltsin for not paying wages on time. And it came from the "red belt", the traditionally conservative farming region near the border with Ukraine.

In all these areas, Mr Zhirinovsky's misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party was close behind the Communists, confounding pundits who had judged it a spent force.

The big surprise of the election was how badly the nationalist Congress of Russian Communities fared. But its charismatic leader, General Alexander Lebed, was safe, because half the seats in the assembly are reserved for constituency MPs and his local power-base of Tula did not let him down.

International observers congratulated Russia on having held fair elections. And, indeed, they probably were except in one pocket - Chechnya - where voters were bribed with meat to go to the polls while separatists continued to resist the Russian military intervention. It came as little surprise when, in good old Soviet style, the single candidate for regional leader, Moscow's stooge, Doku Zavgayev, was declared to have won 90 per cent of the vote.

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