By the time the returns from Russia's pivotal presidential vote Sunday had rolled in yesterday, Russians had spelled out the sentiment that tipped the balance: They are uncomfortable with President Boris Yeltsin, but don't want another revolution.
On a practical level, this brought a narrow initial victory for Mr. Yeltsin over rival candidate Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader who had promised to roll back post-Soviet reforms. Yeltsin is now in a strong position to beat him in a runoff in two to three weeks.
The vote also sprang a new player onto the big-league political scene. Retired Gen. Alexander Lebed, a blunt-spoken law-and-order candidate, surprised many by finishing in third place and is now a major powerbroker in the days before the runoff.
Yeltsin is expected to strike a deal with him soon, offering General Lebed, in return for his support, a prominent government post such as deputy prime minister in charge of the "power ministries" related to the military, police, and intelligence.
Typical of the no-more-revolutions-please attitude among many voters is that of Yeltsin supporter Olga Tikhomirova: "I need to progress, so I need certainty," says the young accountant in Shcherbinka, a town near Moscow. "If there's a new president there will be a shaking up."
Also typical is Valentina Tarasova, a wife and mother who works at the Singer sewing machine factory in nearby Podolsk, also a Yeltsin voter: "Life has sort of settled down. Pay is gradually getting back to what it used to be, in real terms. Everything else is satisfactory."
"Bad stability is better than no stability," said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, describing the message from Rus-sian voters.
The vote leaves Yeltsin in good field position to win the second round, head-to-head matchup against Mr. Zyuganov, but not overly comfortable. With nearly 100 percent of the vote counted yesterday, Yeltsin had 35 percent of the total vote compared with 32 percent for Zyuganov. Their task now is to woo the supporters of the other first-round candidates.
At the center of attention now is Lebed. He won nearly 15 percent of the vote for a strong third place finish.
This is welcome news for Yeltsin's team, which has been quietly courting the retired general in recent weeks. Yesterday, before the preliminary election results were even complete, Lebed went to the Kremlin to meet with the Yeltsin camp.
"I'm sure with a gentle handling of these very fragile voters, Yeltsin can win them over," says Gary Kasparov, the chess champion and a pro-Yeltsin political activist.
A rare image of uprightness
No one is quite sure who Lebed voters are and what message they respond to. With his prizefighter's face, earth-rumbling voice, and a directness rare in Russian politics, he projects an image of strength and uprightness. He gained fame as a war hero in Afghanistan and has lambasted Yeltsin's top brass for corruption and incompetence in the Chechnya war.
Lebed's message is of the need for law and order and to purge the government bureaucracies of corruption.
A major part of the new Lebed constituency appears to have been drawn directly from the former support of radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose voters are steadily drifting away. He failed to reach even 7 percent of the vote this round, although his party finished second with more than 11 percent of the vote in last December's parliamentary elections. And in the parliamentary poll of 1993, his party dominated the field with nearly 23 percent of the vote.
In general, analysts see Zhirinovsky voters - even former Zhirinovsky voters who have already shifted as far as Lebed - as a hard sell for Yeltsin. Zyuganov's message is a closer match to Zhirinovsky's. Yesterday, Zyuganov said that he expected three quarters of Zhirinovsky voters and most of Lebed's voters to support Zyuganov in the second round.
Mr. Kasparov, a political as well as chessboard strategist, is not so sure. Lebed voters he is familiar with are very unhappy about their current living standards and the national economy, but they did not trust Zyuganov.
If Yeltsin can win the full-throated support of Lebed, perhaps by guaranteeing him a prominent cabinet position, then Yeltsin can win many of the Lebed voters, he says.
Ambition in the way
It may not be an easy negotiation between Lebed and Yeltsin. "They are both quite ambitious, and that is a serious variable in Russian politics," says Vyacheslav Nikhonov, director of the Kremlin Analytical Center.
Zyuganov will also seek Lebed's support. "In order to realize his [Lebed's] promises, he needs a team and legislative support. He doesn't have that today," Zyuganov said yesterday. The Communists dominate the Russian parliament.
The fourth-place finisher was Grigory Yavlinsky, the most democratic of the major candidates. He finished fourth with about 7 percent of the vote. In the runoff between Yeltsin and Zyuganov, few of Mr. Yavlinsky's supporters will vote Communist.
But many Yavlinsky voters may not vote at all in the second round rather than back Yeltsin, who launched the war in Chechnya and used firepower against a rebellious Supreme Soviet (the Soviet-era parliament) in 1993.
The voting and vote-counting went more smoothly than in past Russian elections, and Zyuganov, whose supporters organized the most extensive poll-monitoring effort, vouched that they found no significant fraud.