Russian voters give support to Putin's war campaign

ELECTIONS: Yeltsin's chosen successor receives electorate support as early returns show pro-Putin Unity party and Communists fighting it out
RUSSIANS APPEARED to have given a strong vote of confidence to Boris Yeltsin's chosen successor, the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, by opting for the parties he endorsed in yesterday's elections for a new State Duma.

Results were preliminary but last night analysts said the vote amounted to a plebiscite and that if Mr Putin, 47, were to stand for president today, he would become undisputed master of the Kremlin. An obscure administrator before August, when he took office, the former KGB agent has risen by restoring Russian pride through the assault on Chechnya. The outcome of the elections was also a vote of approval for the "anti-terrorist campaign", which the West has criticised.

Two exit polls and the first preliminary results from the Far East and Siberia showed that two parties that enthusiastically backed Mr Putin had won combined support greater than that of the leading opposition party, the Communists.

The unofficial nationwide polls put the Communists, who have a following of mostly elderly voters, ahead with 28 per cent, while the new pro-Putin Unity or "Bear" Party had 24 per cent. But when votes of the Union of Rightist Forces (URF) were added, it gave an extra 11 per cent to Mr Putin's backers.

Official preliminary results, based on votes counted east of the Urals - 10 per cent of the national total - put Unity in first place with 27 per cent, compared to 25 per cent for the Communists, while giving the URF 7 per cent. Results will change as the counting moves westward across this country of 11 time zones. But analysts said a gratifying result for Mr Putin was guaranteed.

The result seemed extraordinary, considering that Unity, led by Mr Putin's friend Sergei Shoigu, the Emergencies Minister, has only existed for two months. But, having been created by the Kremlin to provide a loyal Duma contingent, it enjoyed massive financing and had the full weight of the pro-Kremlin media behind it.

The real election sensation was the success of the URF, led by the former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, who presided over the August 1998 economic crash. Pundits had more or less written off him and his pro-market party.

But after he said he would be backing Mr Putin for president, Mr Kiriyenko received generous air time on pro-Kremlin channels. In his four months in office Mr Putin has devoted himself almost entirely to the Chechnya problem, while leaving the economy to drift. It appears Mr Putin envisages Mr Kiriyenko taking a leading role in the future running of the economy.

A scenario in which Mr Putin was president, Mr Shoigu prime minister and Mr Kiriyenko economy supremo would represent the victory of the younger generation over the old guard in Russia.

The man most disheartened last night was almost certainly another former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, 70, whose Fatherland-All Russia (FAR) bloc, in which he co-operates with the Moscow Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, and key regional governors, was looking defeat in the face. This summer, before the rise of Mr Putin and the start of the Chechen war, it had seemed unstoppable as a non-Communist force of opposition to the corrupt Yeltsin administration. But preliminary results showed it polled about 6 per cent, 1 per cent over the minimum needed to enter parliament. It was behind Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist bloc, with 8 per cent. The liberal Yabloko party was just scraping in with 5 per cent. The situation for FAR and Yabloko might change as votes farther west are counted. Muscovites and St Petersburg residents, whose governor is also a top FAR figure, are unlikely to have abandoned it entirely. The big cities of European Russia are also important centres of Yabloko support. But early results still disappointed Mr Primakov and the Yabloko leader, Grigory Yavlinksy, both of whom until yesterday had had presidential ambitions.