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Putin Rolls to Victory, Avoiding a Runoff

Russia: Acting leader, having cemented his hold on presidency, seeks to strike conciliatory note with his 10 rivals. Communist candidate, who finishes second, alleges vote-rigging.

March 27, 2000|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Vladimir V. Putin, a former KGB spy who rose from obscurity to become Russia's acting head of state, defeated 10 other candidates to be elected in his own right, according to returns early today.

With 92.6% of the vote counted in Russia's second post-Soviet presidential election, Putin received 52.4% and avoided a runoff with the second-place finisher, Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov.

Speaking to reporters early this morning, Putin attempted to strike a conciliatory note and held out the possibility of cooperating with at least some of his political rivals. At the same time, however, he warned the public that Russia's problems were complex and that people should not expect changes overnight.

"The level of expectations is really very high," he said. "I can feel it when I travel across the country and regions. People are really tired. Their life is difficult. And they are waiting for changes for the better. But, of course, miracles don't happen."

During the six-week presidential race, Putin spoke largely in generalities and managed to avoid committing himself to a specific plan of action or economic program. Although many people pin high hopes on his ability to strengthen the state and turn around the economy, Putin's vagueness has left the country uncertain as to what kind of president he will be.

Putin said he will now try to explain clearly what must be done as well as promote public participation.

"We must say bluntly and honestly how we are going to get out from the difficult situation the country is in," he said. "And I must say to the people directly and clearly that I will be doing this, that and the other."

Some Russians fear that, after eight years of the country's experiment with democracy, Putin will become an authoritarian ruler in the long tradition of czars and Soviet dictators. Already, they note, Putin has begun to rebuild the military, exert control over the media and strengthen the secret services.

Zyuganov, who received 29.6% of the vote according to the official tally, charged that the count was rigged and contended that Putin received far fewer votes than election officials were reporting.

"I am sure that if the vote count was honest, there would be a runoff," the Communist leader told reporters. "I want them to count the votes right and not give us some bogus, farfetched figures. They have become so impudent that they are not embarrassed one bit breaking the law. They know that they will never be held accountable for it."

Putin, who spent 16 years as a KGB agent, became acting president on New Year's Eve when then-President Boris N. Yeltsin abruptly stepped down. Yeltsin's early departure moved up scheduled elections by three months, giving Putin the tremendous advantages of incumbency and a short campaign season.

Putin, who has held the post of prime minister since August, won popularity with his pledge to bring order to Russia and his brutal military campaign to subdue separatist rebels in Chechnya. But there were signs his support was already peaking: some polls conducted more than a week before the election showed he would get as much as 57% of the vote.

Many voters, even some who cast their ballots for him, were uncertain what he stands for.

"I voted for him because I don't know him," said Vita Kurochkina, 62, as she left her Moscow polling station. "I know all the rest, and I didn't want to vote for them."

Putin, appearing relaxed and confident, said he was pleased that he was able to conduct a successful campaign without overstating what he would do if elected.

"I never even in a bad dream could imagine that some day I would take part in elections--and you shouldn't laugh," he told reporters. "I have always thought up to now that it is a totally dishonorable business because you must always promise something and you must promise more than your opponents to look more successful.

"And I couldn't imagine myself promising something I know I couldn't deliver. But I must say the way the election campaign was conducted, the way I managed to lead it, saved me from this necessity."

Ultranationalist and presidential candidate Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, who finished in fifth place with less than 3% of the vote, predicted that Putin will create his own personality cult and will never be forced from office.

"At least Yeltsin was old and one could have hoped he would die," Zhirinovsky said. "Putin is young and strong. He will carry on with the same course, and no one will ever unseat him. The time of democracy is ticking away."

Voter Ninel Nazimova, 68, said she was worried that Putin would bring back the same sort of evil dictatorship that killed her parents, both of whom were shot by the Communists in 1936. She cast her ballot for pro-market liberal Grigory A. Yavlinsky, who finished third with 5.8% of the vote.

"We don't want to revive the KGB and bring the KGB back to power," she said. "After they stop killing the Chechens, they will start killing us."

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