MOSCOW — The most significant result of yesterday's presidential election in Russia will not be who wins, but who comes third.
Barring a stunning upset, neither incumbent President Boris Yeltsin nor Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov, will have gathered the absolute majority needed for a first-round victory. And when they go head to head in the July runoff, their fates will hinge on how many votes they can scrape from the barrel of support for the eight eliminated candidates.
Here is a guide to what to look for in the first-round results, as pointers to the crucial second round next month:
*If Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the provocative ultranationalist, comes in third - and especially if he shows strongly - Mr. Yeltsin is in trouble. Mr. Zhirinovsky's supporters, who are deeply disenchanted with the status quo, appear far more likely to pick Mr. Zyuganov over the president if that were the choice.
*If Grigory Yavlinsky, a young free-market economist, captures third place, Yeltsin will be smiling. Mr. Yavlinsky's reform-minded voters may be unhappy with the government's recent half-heartedness over democratic and economic change, but their anti-Communist convictions will drive them willy-nilly into the president's camp.
*If Gen. Alexander Lebed, a no-nonsense law-and-order candidate, comes from behind to finish strongly, as some polls have suggested, the outlook is less certain. General Lebed himself has said he expects as many as 80 percent of his voters to turn to Zyuganov in a second round, drawn by his tirades against corruption.
But Yeltsin campaign strategists are by no means giving up on this potentially rich source of support. The president has held a number of meetings with Lebed in recent weeks, and rumors are rife that the general might be offered a top government post between rounds to tempt him and his voters into Yeltsin's camp.
This first presidential election since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union is effectively a referendum on Russia's difficult transition to a market economy.
Yeltsin's advisers say that he needs to be at least five points clear of Zyuganov, and garnering around 35 percent of the first-round vote, to feel comfortable.
The last opinion polls published before the election gave him a much wider lead than that, but independent analysts - and even Kremlin staffers - give the figures little credence.
Some suspect that not only are the polls inaccurate for technical reasons - a failure to sample the more remote parts of Russia, where opposition support is strongest, for example - but that they have deliberately been made overoptimistic under pressure from authorities.
The purpose of such distortion was not only to create greater momentum for the president, who was lagging behind badly two months ago, but also to make the campaign a two-horse race by discouraging Yavlinsky's supporters from "wasting" their votes, according to diplomats.
The poll findings that showed Yeltsin well ahead also "warned regional bosses to stay on-side," by reminding them who is in power, suggested one diplomatic analyst. The president's boasts that he intended to win outright in the first round served a similar purpose, argues Michael McFaul, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment Moscow Center.
"They were designed to put fear into regional administrators" who might be wavering in their loyalty and pondering whether to jump ship in favor of Zyuganov if he seemed likely to win, he says.
The assumption behind such reasoning is that regional political bosses might be able to influence the vote count. With about two-thirds of regional administrations, and the key Central Electoral Commission, in pro-government hands, Yeltsin has a clear advantage in this sphere.
Both the public and the contenders expect some ballot-rigging. Yeltsin aides and Communist campaign organizers have been accusing each other for weeks of preparing to fix the results in the districts they control, and Lebed laughed earlier this week when asked whether he thought the vote would be entirely fair.
"An election in this country without rigging?" he scoffed. "You must be kidding."
The Communists, skeptical of electoral officials' honesty, deployed an army of observers around the 94,000 polling stations, and presidential supporters paid especially close attention to the vote count in regions of the country where Communists dominate the local administration.
While these precautions may have limited excessive falsification, it is being whispered among government officials that if Zyuganov appears to have a wide lead over the president in the first round, supposed "evidence" of Communist fraud has been prepared, ready for presentation to the Central Electoral Commission.
And in a sign of the public mood, a commonly told joke points to fears of funny business. The headlines announcing the election results, goes the joke, will read as follows: "Zyuganov Wins 55 Percent. Yeltsin Slightly Ahead."