MOSCOW — For many Russians with democratic sympathies, the historically pivotal vote for president three weeks from now is a wrenching choice.
Eleven names will appear on the ballot next month, but only two remain potential winners. Communists and many nationalists are united behind Communist Gennady Zyuganov. The rest of the electorate is reluctantly milling around the only other viable candidate, President Boris Yeltsin.
The choice faced by anti-Communist voters: Either risk letting Communists retake the Kremlin or vote for Mr. Yeltsin - the man who long ago cleared democratic reformers from his Cabinet and whom many hold responsible for the hated, devastating, and so far futile war in Chechnya.
The Russian voters who like Yeltsin best, admits a senior Kremlin political aide, like him for what they remember - the bold leader who literally stood against tanks to launch Russia toward democracy - and not for what they see now.
But Yeltsin is the only game in town for democratic-leaning voters. "It's a terrible moral and political dilemma for many people," says Andrei Piontkowski, director of the Center for Strategic Studies here and a political analyst.
The candidate with stronger democratic credentials, economist Grigory Yavlinsky, is running a distant third in the polls behind Mr. Zyuganov and Yeltsin. Mr. Yavlinsky says Russia's presidency should be weaker, more like the US model of balanced powers, and has staunchly opposed the Chechen war.
But Mr. Yavlinsky's vote-getting ability has been stuck at about the same level - 7 or 8 percent - for years now. His basic problem, most Russian observers say, is his personality. He does not work well with others, is a poor campaigner, and poor organizer. "He's a kind of capricious boy," Mr. Piontkowski says. "He doesn't know how to behave with the press, with political allies."
Some analysts also argue that Yavlinsky almost entirely disappeared from the pro-government Russian news media early this year because the Yeltsin team used its influence to make sure democratic alternatives to Yeltsin - especially Yavlinsky - were starved of money and attention.
Yavlinsky's importance now is in what sort of alliance he forges with Yeltsin. He has had a series of lengthy meetings with Yeltsin to discuss his terms for supporting Yeltsin, presumably in a runoff election between Yeltsin and Zyuganov that would be held after the first-round vote June 16.
Yavlinsky's support at that time could be critical to Yeltsin's prospects. Even with Yavlinsky out of the race in a runoff vote, Yeltsin can only expect to attract half of Yavlinsky's supporters at most, says Gyorgy Satarov, a senior Kremlin aide now on leave to work as a top Yeltsin campaign official. The other half will either not vote or mark "against all of them" on their ballots.
But if Yavlinsky supports Yeltsin, according to Vyacheslav Nikonov, the new director of the Kremlin Analytical Center, polls show that he brings with him even more votes for Yeltsin than Yavlinsky had for himself. This is because so many democratic-leaning Russians have not made up their minds and are looking for signals, he says.
"The president in general is aware that a coalition would have been good for him, and he is aware that Grigory Yavlinsky is key," says Mr. Satarov.
But negotiations have been stymied by Yavlinsky's difficult personality as well as his political inertia. Late last week, for example, Yavlinsky wrote a lengthy public letter dictating his terms to Yeltsin that included firing Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and a slew of other ministers within a week. And even if Yeltsin would have done so, Yavlinsky promised nothing in return.
The subtext of these negotiations is that Yeltsin would appoint Yavlinsky as his prime minister. Satarov even says that Yavlinsky would make an "ideal" prime minister, but sees very little chance that such a deal could be negotiated before the second round of voting in July. And after that, Yavlinsky's leverage disappears.
For weeks, Yavlinsky was meeting with two other candidates - retired Gen. Alexander Lebed and eye surgeon Svyatislav Fyodorev - about combining forces. They even agreed to unite behind a single candidate and platform, in principle, but by last week their public statements were increasingly at odds with each other.
Russian democrats would be happier and more united today if Yeltsin had stepped aside for his loyal ally, Mr. Chernomyrdin, to run for president, Piontkowski says. Though an establishment figure, he is also seen as a peacemaker in Chechnya whose efforts were undercut by Yeltsin. "The democratic movement would readily support him," says Piontkowski.
Other candidates, such as the architect of reform in Russia, Yegor Gaidar, were culled from serious consideration by poor showings in last December's parliamentary elections.
Mikhail Gorbachev, meanwhile, attracts interest only in the West, where he is remembered as a historic figure who changed the world. But Russians remember his battles against Yeltsin and the democrats in 1991, as well as military crackdowns in Lithuania, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. He is polling about 1 percent.