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Russian Elections: Brazilian soap keeps public from dachaland

Foreign journalists waited for two hours yesterday to watch Boris Yeltsin vote in Moscow, only to be told that he had cast his ballot beyond the glare of publicity in a village outside the city. Many quickly jumped to the worst conclusions about the health of the president, who had already aroused suspicions by dropping from view in the last days of the election campaign.

Many Russians were unaware that the Kremlin leader had failed to turn up at his usual polling station near his home in the prestigious suburb of Krylatskoye, and had voted instead at Barvikha where he convalesced last year after his two heart attacks. Those who knew took the news in their stride. It was not going to influence voting decisions that they had made weeks if not months ago.

"I have voted for a person whom I do not greatly respect but who will take us forward into the future," said Larissa Sergeyevna, in her late forties, who did not want to reveal the secret of her vote but was nevertheless implying that she had chosen Mr Yeltsin. Did she know that he was apparently ill? "Ah, that's nothing," she said. "We have got used to him disappearing from time to time. He'll be back."

She was one of only a trickle of voters at the polling station on Dostoyevsky Street in central Moscow yesterday morning. To discourage city dwellers from taking advantage of the warm weather and travelling out to their dachas instead of voting, state television was showing a triple episode of a popular Brazilian soap opera, Tropicana. Many people were evidently glued to their sets.

But voting seemed to pick up after lunch. At 2pm there was a livelier flow of people coming from polling station No 2148 in the Akademicheskaya district of the city, and most of them said they had voted for Mr Yeltsin rather than Gennady Zyganov, the Communist leader, despite whatever health problems he might have.

"It's not good news, of course," said Mikhail Vasin, a young businessman, "but I have voted for Yeltsin anyway. I think he will be okay. He's a healthy bloke, a sportsman. So what if he drinks? We all drink, don't we? And even if he has to retire, it won't be the end of the world. He has a good team around him. But Zyuganov - if he wins, that will be the end of the world."

Olga Grigorievna, a doctor, was equally calm after voting for the incumbent president. "We're all people. We can all get colds," she said, showing more faith in the official explanation of Mr Yeltsin's absence than most foreign observers here.

One might have thought that Russians, who lived through the last days of Leonard Brezhnev, when the Kremlin made ridiculous claims that the dying leader had only minor ailments, would have been more inclined to question what they were told. Perhaps strong Yeltsin supporters just did not want to contemplate the worst. For Communists, of course, news that Mr Yeltsin was not well only strengthened their determination to vote for Mr Zyuganov, who last week was ostentatiously dancing and playing volleyball to prove he was in good health.

"I have known Yeltsin since he was in Sverdlovsk [as regional Communist leader in the Soviet era] and I can tell you that his drink problem goes back that far," said Vasily Parfyonov, a retired journalist and Zyuganov voter. "He may be trying to fight his weakness but the passion for alcohol is not curable. Russia needs a healthy leader."

If the president is forced to retire because of ill health, the constitution says the prime minister should take over pending fresh elections. But General Alexander Lebed's appointment as Mr Yeltsin's national security adviser has added a new factor. He has said he favours the revival of the post of vice- president, and clearly aspires to the top Kremlin job for himself.

Yesterday, Yeltsin voters understood that they were choosing a package which included General Lebed, a nationalist and advocate of strict law and order. Some found the situation reassuring; others did not.

"The fact that Lebed is at his side gives me more confidence to vote for Yeltsin," said Valya Zosikova, who spent last year in Cambridge. "Lebed will see that everything is all right."

But Kostya Fadeyev, a student of computer studies, disagreed. "I'm voting for Yeltsin, not Lebed," he said. "I don't want to see Lebed coming in through the back door." He added, however, that he did not think this likely. "Lebed will be out in six months. He's a soldier. He's too straight to survive for long in the Kremlin.