RUSSIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS: Tactical voting hits Moscow's polling booths

Yevgeny Yegorov had made his mind up about one thing. Wherever else in Russia the authorities might try to fiddle the vote, they would not get away with it on his patch. He and his fellow observers from the Communist Party were going to be as vigilant as hawks.

"I think there probably will be some falsification," he said, as he gazed morosely across the town square, which was teeming with people who had come to vote but who were lingering to watch the election-day festivities - clowns, a theatre troupe, and a military band playing favourites from old Soviet films.

The patch in question was Moskovsky, a community 10 miles south of Moscow which owes its living largely to roses, carnations and cucumbers. For Mr Yegorov and his six party colleagues, this was barren soil, enemy territory where the liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky came first in December's elections. That was one reason they were here: to weed out any sign of fraud by the pro-reformers.

"They have been very correct, very co-operative so far," he admitted yesterday at lunchtime, after inspecting the wax seals on the ballot boxes. "But the crucial time is between 8pm and 10pm. The risk is that the organisers have acquaintances whom they know won't be voting and decide to vote on their behalf. We will be watching constantly."

The plan was straightforward. He would stay at his post until the count was complete. By law, he would then get a copy of the figures to pass on to party district and regional headquarters. From there it would go up the line to the Communists' central committee, where they were doing a nationwide count. "And just in case they suddenly run out of protocols here, I have brought my own," he said, flourishing a fistful of documents. Before the election, the Communists vowed to place observers in all the 95,000 stations across Russia to make it as hard as possible for any vote- rigging to occur. Mr Yeltsin's campaign did the same, mindful that many of the local election officials who run the voting stations are Communists.

Last night it was impossible to tell whether either side had fulfilled its plans, although there were observers in the Moscow region. Meanwhile, the whole process is being watched by 1,200 international observers, roughly one for each of the 85 voting centres.

For all the suspicions of Mr Yegorov, a 60-year-old retired farm official, the scene was as serene as the nearby greenhouses. Children rode bicycles in the square while their parents wandered in to vote or browse the stalls packed with fruit, chocolates, tins of fish, beer, vodka, soap and other luxuries. Two actresses dressed as witches, their peaked hats jutting into the rainy skies, were playing a game called "Make Your Choice". Passers-by had to toss a hat on to a stick.

Inside the busy polling booths there was serious activity. In December's parliamentary elections, many electors had beenbewildered. With a choice of 43 parties, many had stood in the booths studying the official guide like punters at the races. But yesterday, they knew what they were doing.

"I'm for Yeltsin," said Anna Siramashenko, a 78-year-old grandmother, who was a nurse at the Battle of Stalingrad. "People keep saying it's bad in Russia today, but I have everything I need. In the war, the earth around us burned. I don't see any burning fields today." More predictably perhaps, Alexei and Maxim, 25-year-olds who run their own transport company, also backed the President. "There's one reason - freedom," Maxim said.

Democracy is still young in Russia, but Vladimir Koligov, a horticulturist, had learned all its subtleties. The candidate for whom he voted yesterday has little chance of meeting July's run-off, as well he knew, but his was a carefully planned strategic vote. Mr Koligov chose Mr Yavlinsky, because he believes Mr Yeltsin will win without his vote.

To Mr Koligov this was not a wasted vote. He believes that if Mr Yavlinsky gets enough votes, Mr Yeltsin will have to strike a deal with him before the next round.

The pace of reforms will be quickened. Mr Koligov does not much like Mr Yeltsin, but he prefers him to the unknownquantity of Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader.

Mr Yeltsin needed strategic voters yesterday. The President's advisers have been fretting that his rash claims of outright victory last week may well have been an own goal, encouraging people to vote for third-party candidates on the grounds that he would win anyway. But, as tactical voting goes, Mr Koligov was operatingon a level that even these advisers had not considered. Russians are catching on to democracy fast.

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