Yeltsin Reelected in Stunning Victory Over Communist Foe
An ailing Boris N. Yeltsin won a stunning reelection victory early today in Russia’s watershed presidential runoff, but his failure to vote in public served as a sobering reminder of just how uncertain the future remains in vast and restless Russia.
With 92% of the vote counted from Wednesday’s balloting, the quasi-official Itar-Tass news agency declared Yeltsin the winner after the Central Election Commission’s 8 a.m. vote totals showed Yeltsin with 54% and Communist Party challenger Gennady A. Zyuganov with just over 40%.
Yeltsin grabbed the lead with the first returns from the Far East and steadily strengthened it as the tally worked its way westward through the reform bastions of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Yeltsin’s campaign staff was far from jubilant, though, as the victory remained undeclared by the absent incumbent and fresh fears for his health muted the mood for celebration.
Yeltsin, a 65-year-old with a history of heart trouble, failed to show up at his suburban Moscow polling place, voting instead at a makeshift station at the Barvikha spa and hospital enclave, where he spent the final days of the campaign in seclusion.
Early today, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin was reported to be meeting with Yeltsin and was expected to make a statement on the president’s behalf.
Videotape provided by Kremlin officials to Russian television showed a spirited but stiff Yeltsin casting his ballot and exhorting his countrymen to get out and vote. It did little to dispel concern that the leader has suffered a physical setback.
Yeltsin’s no-show at the Krylatskoye polling station in suburban Moscow, where the world’s press was arrayed to see him, sent hearts and stock markets fluttering abroad.
Russian voters, however, seemed to shrug off their president’s low profile as the predictable toll of a grueling reelection effort.
Yeltsin was nowhere to be seen as the vote rolled in, and his supporters were vague and evasive about his condition.
“He’ll have something to say very soon,” promised top presidential advisor Georgy A. Satarov, hours after partial returns showed Yeltsin strongly ahead and gaining.
Zyuganov appeared confident as he cast his ballot in central Moscow early in the day, telling journalists he had “a good feeling” about the outcome. But he also slipped out of the limelight after voting, leaving his lieutenants to bemoan his disappointing showing without conceding that he had lost.
“It is not possible to win or lose elections in this country,” groused Anatoly I. Lukyanov, a hard-line Communist lawmaker and participant in the 1991 failed coup against Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. “To win elections in a devastated country is impossible.”
The Communists’ deputy campaign chief, Alexei I. Podberezkin, proclaimed a moral victory because “Yeltsin has already adopted many of our ideas.”
Yeltsin has in recent weeks laid claim to such Communist policies as intensifying cooperation with other former Soviet republics and boosting pensions for the country’s poorest residents.
Few Yeltsin officials were ready to relish the triumph before the count was finished, but one key backer, Sergei G. Belyayev of the pro-reform Our Home Is Russia movement, said Yeltsin won because he knew what he wanted and fought hard for it.
“The victory of Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] has been a certainty since Day One,” a beaming Belyayev told reporters.
In Washington, President Clinton and top officials of his administration heaved a collective sigh of relief as the votes for Yeltsin piled up.
Although the White House and State Department said they would have no formal comment until today, officials did say that a Yeltsin victory would clear the way for a resumption of normal Washington-Moscow relations.
During the campaign period, the administration appeared to tailor its policy to avoid anything that might hurt the incumbent’s reelection chances.
Bob Dole, the likely Republican candidate for the White House, went even further than Clinton in applauding Yeltsin’s showing.
“It appears President Boris Yeltsin has won today’s elections in Russia,” Dole said in a written statement released early in the vote count. “I offer my congratulations to him. Boris Yeltsin has, once again, played a historic role in Russia’s transition to democracy.”
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said, “Obviously, those of us here in Washington are watching this voting with a very high degree of interest, given the stakes in U.S.-Russian relations, given the enormous stake that the United States has in the continuation of reform in Russia.”
While Yeltsin’s lead over Zyuganov left little doubt that he will be officially declared the winner when all the votes are counted, the president will be confronted with a society deeply divided between hope for a prosperous future and nostalgia for a stable, if stagnant, Communist past.
With a sizable portion of the ballots cast for Zyuganov or “against both” and more than 30% of eligible Russians not voting at all, the president will have to mend fences with political opponents to ensure social peace and economic recovery in a second term.
But for a politician who dwelt in the single-digit doldrums of popular support only six months ago, his victory ranks as one of the most spectacular comebacks in modern times.
That feat is largely testimony to the powers of incumbency in a country only recently liberated from one-party domination.
Yeltsin controlled the purportedly free mass media as journalists feared a new era of censorship under Zyuganov.
The wealth of the state was at his disposal to spend his way into the hearts of the electorate. He was even able to persuade the Communist-led Duma, the lower house of parliament, to set the runoff date for Wednesday instead of the traditional Sunday, when many potential voters would have wandered off to the countryside.
But his retreat from the public eye during the nail-biting last days of a close campaign intensified concerns about his fitness for another, four-year term in the powerful office, especially in the absence of a clear successor.
Retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed has been brought into the Kremlin hierarchy as Yeltsin’s new security chief, but despite unabashed ambitions of becoming the heir apparent, he is believed to have too little political experience to fill the president’s shoes.
Aides and senior government officials scrambled to calm fears and quell rumors that the president had suffered another bout of ischemia, a restriction of blood supply to the heart that left him bedridden for months last year.
“Don’t panic!” pleaded Yeltsin’s spokesman, Sergei K. Medvedev, when word was conveyed to a mob of reporters in Krylatskoye that the president would not be voting there.
Medvedev said Yeltsin changed his mind about where to vote Wednesday morning, then the spokesman added to the confusion by saying the president had obtained an absentee ballot the previous day.
Chernomyrdin, the prime minister, also sought to allay fears that Yeltsin’s health was in question.
“Could I reasonably have left the country, even for a short time, if the president were seriously ill?” he replied indignantly when confronted with questions.
Chernomyrdin was referring to his one-day trip to Lyons, France, last week to take part in the Group of 7 industrial nations’ annual summit.
“The president is fine. He is working. He is in command of the country,” Chernomyrdin insisted.
Before the rekindled health worries, Yeltsin’s staff had been fretting over the possibility of a low voter turnout for the second round that might have benefited Zyuganov.
Sixty-seven percent of eligible voters took part in the runoff, down only slightly from the 70% turnout for the June 16 first round when Yeltsin led his main challenger by a mere three percentage points, 35% to 32%.
Even as voters filed into the polls, there were still many doubts about how supporters of the eight men eliminated in the first round would cast their ballots in the runoff between Yeltsin and Zyuganov.
Some of Russia’s most prominent politicians voted against both.
“Today what we have is an election without a choice,” Gorbachev told journalists as he voted against the two contenders.
Gorbachev, who finished a distant seventh with less than 1% of the first-round vote, said the best outcome for Russia would be if a new election was made necessary by the votes “against both” outnumbering those for either candidate.
The option for expressing opposition to both contenders was exercised by about 5% of those who cast ballots.
Ultranationalist hothead Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky also made a public display of voting against Yeltsin and Zyuganov, and economist Grigory A. Yavlinsky refused to say how he voted.
Zhirinovsky finished fifth in the first round with less than 6% of the vote and Yavlinsky, who has refused to formally endorse Yeltsin, was fourth with 7.5%.
According to the constitution, Yeltsin should be inaugurated 30 days after the vote is declared final by the Central Election Commission.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.
* YELTSIN’S HEALTH: Many voters discounted concerns over his well-being. A9
* RELATED STORIES: A9, A10
A Nation Chooses
A victory by Boris N. Yeltsin in the presidential election will probably mean:
* A return of some of the billions of dollars taken out by Russian entrepreneurs hesitant to reinvest in an uncertain political climate.
* Rising foreign investment as international business gains confidence that Russia is irreversibly on the reform track.
* Brisker privatization of land and industry.
* Serious attention to military reforms, including streamlining an oversized army, creating an all-volunteer force and ending the war in Chechnya.
* Continued war against inflation, down to 70% last year after reaching four-digit levels in the early 1990s.
* Stable relations with the West.
* No immediate relief for many of those living on small pensions and jobless benefits. Source: Times Moscow Bureau
With 92% of the vote counted:
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