Russia's Vote

If the Russian polls can be believed, and that is a big if, President Boris Yeltsin now has a serious lead over his main rival, Communist Gennady Zyuganov. Mr. Yeltsin is so confident that he claims he will win election outright in the first round June 16.

Perhaps. It does appear that Mr. Zyuganov has failed to move beyond his coalition of unhappy pensioners, military personnel, old-line factory managers, true believers, nationalists, and social democrats, which represents about 30 percent of the Russian electorate. Yeltsin, on the other hand, has managed a remarkable comeback from single digits following last December's parliamentary elections. He has made serious progress in stopping the fighting in Chechnya and has campaigned hard across the country, making promises of payment of back wages and economic assistance. Those promises will be hard to keep.

Meanwhile, Grigory Yavlinksy, the race's true democrat, has proved unadept at coalition-building. And ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has not reversed his slide in the polls. (It's important to note that polls in the past have seriously underestimated Mr. Zhirinovsky's support.)

Should no one get a majority in the first round, a second-round ballot - probably featuring Yeltsin and Zyuganov - will follow in early July. Yeltsin is expected to pick up most of the liberal vote and win. Negotiations with Mr. Yavlinksy for a role in the government have gone nowhere, but options will reopen if no one wins the first round, especially if the margin between Yeltsin and Zyuganov is close.

If reform and progress for the Russian people is to continue, the temptation to return to communism must be rejected. Many believe circumstances would force Zyuganov to continue reform, but his economic program promises a return to the disastrous old ways that caused the Soviet Union's demise. Vibrant, growing economies cannot be planned. They happen when the free market is allowed to function with as little interference as possible. And Russia can't afford the economic or human cost of trying to reassemble the Soviet empire.

Yeltsin has stumbled through economic reform. He's had a tough time dealing with corruption and crime. The dislocations of rebuilding an economy destroyed by decades of communist experiment are severe. But economic growth is finally on the horizon. Things are getting better for many Russians. To throw it all away at this crucial moment would be tragic.

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