Passing Batton Will Be Easiest If Yeltsin Can Pass It to Himself

Let's hear it, first of all, for Russia's infant democracy. The election wasn't canceled by a power-hungry president, as some had predicted. There was no widespread vote-rigging, as many had predicted. And not even the televised Russia-Germany championship soccer game prevented a voter turnout of almost 70 percent, something that a mature democracy like ours could well envy.

The fear that Russians, shaken by the shocks of the post-Communist era, would want to turn back the clock proved also to be unwarranted. In-depth exit polling by the Mitofsky International organization indicated that while a plurality, 46 percent, thought they were better off under "socialism," still only 22 percent favored a return to socialism. Twenty-eight percent like democracy in its present form, and the largest number, 47 percent, want something else, undefined.

The Russian electorate appeared to be saying that the past is over and done with, the present is a misery, but they still look forward to something better in the future.

That suggests one reason why they gave the law-and-order ex-general, Alexander Lebed, 15 percent of the vote. Lebed's theme was, "We must push ahead and never backward."

In the exit polls, the issue most important to voters was payment of pensions and wages, on which the government is far behind. Then the economy. Then the war in Chechnya, with a plurality of voters supporting independence.

Another dog that didn't bark was the expectation that the election would reveal a nationalistic and anti-Western strain. Only 2 percent listed foreign policy as the issue most important to them, and a plurality of 34 percent said they considered the United States an ally.

Even before President Boris Yeltsin began his courtship of Lebed, Sunday's exit polls indicated he is favored to win the run-off; 52 percent said they would vote for Mr. Yeltsin in the second round; 39 percent said they would vote for his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov.

What Russian voters seem to want more than anything is stability and a better life. They've had their fill of revolution and reaction. They show little yearning for new imperialist conquests abroad, or an iron fist at home. And most of them seem willing, for a lack of anyone better, to stick with Yeltsin.

A lot of people, inside and outside Russia, are breathing easier with the prospect of a Yeltsin victory. Russia has no experience with a voluntary handover of power. The Russian tradition is the vozhd - the supreme ruler - who gains his power by heredity, like the Romanov czars, or by conspiracy, like the Communist bosses.

The vozhd is not voted out. He either dies in office, like Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, and Andropov, or he is deposed like Khrushchev and Gorbachev. There are no rules for transition, no settled procedure for taking over the presidency. Many Russian observers believe that Yeltsin would never step down of his own volition - an un-Russian thing to do - but would be more likely to charge election fraud and stay. The firings of Oleg Soskovets, Alexander Korzhakov, and Mikhail Barsuleov appear aimed at preventing such an antidemocratic maneuver.

You might think of the military and the parliament as important power centers. But the military - its chief, Gen. Pavel Grachev, fired to make room for General Lebed - appears to be divided and anxious to stay out of politics. The parliament was elected and should have some legitimacy, but the Yeltsin constitution leaves it with little power other than to debate and pass resolutions which are truly nonbinding.

So it will be just as well if Russia is spared a confrontation with a president unwilling to yield power.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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