RUSSIA'S June presidential elections are constructed on the French model: The top two vote-getters in Round 1 (June 16) run against each other in Round 2 (July 7 or 14). Not long ago, Boris Yeltsin looked like a long shot to even make it to the second round, let alone win reelection.
That has changed. Russian and Western observers now assume that Yeltsin will make it to the second ballot and that his primary opponent will be Communist Gennady Zyuganov, considered the front-runner. Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has plummeted in the opinion polls. Grigory Yavlinksy, the democrat who is a favorite of many in the West, appears unable to draw enough liberals away from Yeltsin to make it past Round 1.
If Yeltsin makes it into the second round instead of Yavlinsky, the latter will drive a hard bargain for throwing his support behind the president. Some believe the bargaining has already begun. No one knows how many votes the democrats represent these days, but it is clear that the center of power has moved away from them.
The United States and its allies must resist the temptation to weigh in heavily in Yeltsin's favor. That would do more damage than good in the eyes of nationalistic Russian voters. Western leaders must meet with the opposition, especially Mr. Zyuganov, as President Clinton did Sunday.
Zyuganov is a puzzle for the West and for many Russians. He preaches a mild, social-democratic line abroad and a hard line on the campaign trail. He has even praised Stalin and criticized the dictator's political successors. Men around Zyuganov assure their listeners that the social-democracy talk is for export only: The party will restore the Soviet Union and its centralized state-owned economy if elected.
To win, Yeltsin must demonstrate that he is coping with the economic and social consequences of the upheaval reform has brought, especially unpaid wages and pensions and increased crime. He must broaden other reforms such as landownership. And he must make far more progress in ending the Chechen war than he has done so far. Even with all this, Yeltsin's reelection is far from assured.