- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

MOSCOW Vladimir Putin turned back an unexpectedly strong challenge from Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov yesterday to win a four-year term as president of Russia.
The low-key 47-year-old former KGB intelligence officer rocketed to power in the Kremlin just six months after being picked from obscurity by former President Boris Yeltsin last fall.
But his popularity, based on his decisive handling of the war in Chechnya, has peaked in recent weeks, and preliminary returns suggest Mr. Putin barely achieved the absolute majority needed to avoid a runoff against Mr. Zyuganov next month.
With 92 percent of the vote from yesterday's election counted by early today, Mr. Putin had almost 52 percent of the vote, enough to ensure victory and avoid a second round against the next highest vote winner.

Mr. Zyuganov was second with 29.6 percent, better than the 25 percent many polls had predicted. Yabloko Party candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, the main hope of free-market reformers in the race, finished a distant third with around 7 percent of the vote.
A definite surprise in the early returns was Aman Tuleyev, governor of the coal-mining region of Kemerovo and a former Communist. Picked to finish far down the list, Mr. Tuleyev led the better known Mr. Yavlinsky early in the evening before fading.
Mr. Putin's narrow mandate leaves him with a host of problems to deal with, from a weak economy to corruption and crime to the lingering military standoff in Chechnya.
The danger in the breakaway republic was underscored just hours after the polls closed yesterday when Russian officials announced a car bomb had been detonated in the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, although it was not clear whether Chechen rebels were responsible.
In his remarks last night, Mr. Putin said that the surprising showing by the Communists underscored voter dissatisfaction. Russians have seen a sharp economic decline in recent years.
Having avoided specifics in the brief presidential campaign, Mr. Putin now must produce details on his plans to revive the Russian economy.
Voting was orderly and incident-free at a dozen polling stations around Moscow yesterday, on a mostly sunny day. Election officials reported few problems as voters pondered the blue sheet listing the 11 official candidates for president.
In Minskoe, a distant suburb of Moscow, an elderly woman who identified herself as Martina said she had voted for Yabloko candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, even though she expected Mr. Putin to win.
Guiding her bundled-up grandson out of the small administrative building that has served as the precinct's polling place since the time of Stalin, Martina said, "My big worry is the economy here. What can Mr. Putin do about this?"
She gestured to the half-completed Russian tract mansions, incongruously sited amid the rundown suburb, that had not been worked on since the ruble collapse of 1998.
But Mikhail Aksyenov, a 22-year-old construction worker, said he backed Mr. Putin even though he had growing doubts about the Chechnya war.
"Compared to the rest of them, he's the only one who can make a decision," he said.
Despite fears of voter apathy, election officials said turnout was generally brisk. At one Moscow voting station, 43 percent of the local residents had already voted by 11 a.m.
Even before the polls closed in Moscow, the Central Election Commission announced that more than 50 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots, removing a major Kremlin fear that the election could be nullified due to low turnout.
Election officials said last night that turnout actually topped 65 percent. Voting was even held, with mixed results, in the war-torn republic of Chechnya, where Russian forces continue to battle determined Chechen resistance forces and many people have been driven from their homes.
In the election campaign, the Kremlin ensured blanket coverage for Mr. Putin in the state-controlled media the two state-owned television channels that dominate the airwaves in Russia provided respectful coverage of Mr. Putin and launched harsh attacks on his rivals, notably on Mr. Yavlinsky.
The country's 89 regional governors were pressed to back Mr. Putin and with just one or two exceptions offered their allegiance.
Few of Russia's main politicians or businessmen resisted Kremlin overtures to join the Putin bandwagon.
Liberal and reform critics of Mr. Putin, who are anxious about his KGB background, complained throughout the campaign that the poll smacked of a Soviet-era election with its sense of a foregone conclusion.
That view was echoed by some voters who went to the polling stations to back Mr. Yavlinsky.
"Putin is dangerous. He seems too harsh," said Muscovite Anna Polevaya, a 27-year-old architect.
"I don't know Putin, and I am even afraid of him. He scares me," said Svetlana Fralova, 37, in the central Siberian city of Novosibirsk. But the majority of Russians were ready to embrace Mr. Putin because of his promise to restore strong central government and to revive Russia's fortunes.
"I'm tired of all this disorder," said Vladimir Prishchev, a pensioner casting his ballot for Mr. Putin in Russia's Pacific port city of Vladivostok.
Yesterday's poll was called when Mr. Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on Dec. 31, thrusting then-Prime Minister Putin into the acting presidency.
Russia was due for presidential elections in June but the timetable was moved up to the anger of Mr. Putin's political opponents, who complained that the Kremlin was forcing on them virtually a snap election.
Casting his ballot in Moscow, Mr. Yeltsin said he was sure reforms would continue. "Everyone is waiting for change. There will be some changes but the main thing is that the reform course must be maintained and it will be. I am sure of this," he said.

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