IF OPINION polls in Lithuania are to be believed, Algirdas Brazauskas, leader of the former Communists, will romp home to victory in the country's first genuinely democratic presidential election to be held tomorrow.
Most recent surveys have given Mr Brazauskas just over 50 per cent, a comfortable lead of some 10 points over his only rival, Stasys Lozoraitis, Lithuania's ambassador to the United States and a man who has spent only three months in the past 53 years living in the country.
Opinion polls in Lithuania, however, are not to be believed - as witnessed so spectacularly in the parliamentary elections last October, which saw Mr Brazauskas's Democratic Labour Party (DLP), against all expectation, trounce the nationalist Sajudis movement led by the former president, Vytautas Landsbergis.
That time, the polls were consistently wrong by a margin of between 10 and 15 per cent. In the Vilnius headquarters of the Lozoraitis campaign, hopes are pinned on a similar upset this time.
'In just three weeks of active electioneering, Mr Lozoraitis has emerged from almost total obscurity to within striking distance of the presidency,' said Darius Silas, an American-Lithuanian helping the campaign. 'He has gone out to meet the people, to press the flesh. And the more they have heard and seen, the more they have liked.'
Such upbeat talk is, to some extent, justified. On whistle-stop tours across the country, Mr Lozoraitis, whose long exile abroad was spent bravely representing an independent Lithuania that no longer existed, has certainly struck a chord. His message of conciliation and innovation has also been well received by an electorate still reeling from the economic shock of breaking away from the former Soviet Union and disillusioned with the bitter political in-fighting that characterised the Landsbergis era.
'Mr Lozoraitis wants to usher in a period of political stability,' said Mr Silas. 'The country is in a crisis, and, as the only genuinely independent candidate, he wants to draw people from all parties together to agree a programme for the way forward.'
While accepting Mr Lozoraitis has gained ground over the past three weeks, few observers really believe that he is about to pip Mr Brazauskas at the post. They point to his lack of familiarity with Lithuania today and to the fact that, at 68, he hardly comes across as the dynamic leader needed to propel the country into the 21st century.
'Mr Lozoraitis is nice enough, but he does not know the country anymore,' said one Vilnius shop assistant. 'We need someone who is really in touch, and who knows how things work here. We need Mr Brazauskas.' Support for the DLP leader is particularly strong among the many Lithuanians still employed by the state, who fear that too rapid a transition to a free-market economy will lead to mass unemployment.
Mr Brazauskas is also very popular among peasants, who remain bitterly critical of the radical way in which Mr Landsbergis broke up the collective farms and returned land, with disastrous consequences, to pre-Soviet occupation owners or their descendants.
In addition to promising a more gentle pace of economic transformation, Mr Brazauskas is also insisting that Lithuania should realise that 80 per cent of its economic ties are still with the republics of the former Soviet Union.
'Independence is all very well, but we still depend on Russia for our oil and most of our trade,' said Linas Linkevicius, a foreign affairs specialist in the DLP. 'Of course we want to orientate ourselves towards the West more, but it will be a very gradual process. And in the meantime, we cannot bite the hand that feeds us.'
Mr Brazauskas's critics say he simply wants to be a puppet of Moscow and that such policies would undermine Lithuania's independence. It is a charge he rejects totally, pointing out that, as leader of what was then the Lithuania Communist Party, he took the unprecedented step of breaking away from the central party in Moscow in December 1989.
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