Yeltsin Wins Presidency of Russia

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 30, 1990

MOSCOW, MAY 29 -- Soviet populist politician Boris Yeltsin today was elected president of Russia, the Soviet Union's largest and most powerful republic, in a major political rebuff to President Mikhail Gorbachev.

The result of the election in the new Russian legislature was announced only hours after Gorbachev flew to Canada en route to a summit meeting with President Bush, leaving behind a country in political and economic turmoil. It marks an extraordinary political comeback for Yeltsin, 59, who was forced to leave the Soviet leadership in November 1987 after criticizing the slow pace of reform under Gorbachev.

Mobbed by supporters as he left the Kremlin on foot through Red Square, Yeltsin predicted that his victory would oblige Gorbachev to agree to much more radical measures to save the Soviet Union from disintegration. But at the same time, he promised that he would work to achieve his campaign pledges of making Russia a sovereign state within a much looser Soviet federation and of ending the special status enjoyed by the Communist Party and the KGB security police.

"This is an important step in the victory of democracy in Russia," boomed the silver-haired Yeltsin, addressing Muscovites from a makeshift podium near St. Basil's Cathedral beneath the red walls of the Kremlin. "Now we need to continue the fight for the independence and sovereignty of Russia, for the revival of its national, economic and spiritual image, so that Russia will live as it did before."

The crowd, many of whom had staged a daily vigil outside the Kremlin to encourage Russian legislators to vote for Yeltsin, responded with chants of "Victory! Victory!" and "Thank you, thank you." "We are all for Yeltsin," said a police colonel, smartly saluting the new Russian president.

Immediately after his election by just four votes more than the needed majority, the former Moscow Communist Party chief announced formation of a reconciliation commission representing all rival factions in the Russian legislature. The commission, which meets Wednesday, will try to reach agreement on the division of posts in the Russian government.

Yeltsin's election to the Russian presidency is likely to transform the Soviet political landscape, affecting everything from Gorbachev's personal authority to the vexing problem of relations between the central government and the Soviet Union's 15 constituent republics. Covering two-thirds of the Soviet landmass and containing more than half the country's population, Russia provides an exceptionally important political base for the radicals.

"Gorbachev is becoming a king without any subjects," said Yuri Boldirev, a radical-reform lawyer who represents Leningrad in the standing national legislature, or Supreme Soviet. "If he is opposed by Russia, then who is there left for him to rely on? Only the Central Asian republics, but they, too, are getting their own rulers."

During regional Soviet elections over the past few months, independence movements have come to power in the three Baltic republics, and numerous towns and cities in the Soviet Union's Slavic heartland -- including Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Lvov and Sverdlovsk -- have come under control of radical groups of one kind or another. Nationalists also are gaining influence in the southern Transcaucasian republics of Georgia and Armenia.

The importance of the Russian vote was reflected in the efforts made by Gorbachev to block the election of a man he appears to regard as a dangerous political rival and demagogue. In an emotional speech to the Russian legislature last week, he accused Yeltsin of wanting to abandon "the Socialist choice" made by the Soviet people in 1917 and proposing the "disintegration" of the Soviet Union.

Last night, Gorbachev again met with leaders of the Communist Party caucus in the legislature, telling them that Yeltsin's election would be harmful to Russian interests. Participants at the meeting said, however, that the Soviet president indicated he might be prepared to support a coalition government with Yeltsin as president and a conservative as prime minister.

Yeltsin's offer of a coalition appears to have swayed sufficient numbers of Communist and independent legislators to ensure his victory in the third round of voting. Yeltsin had won a plurality in the first two rounds, but failed to win the required majority of 531, one more than half the membership of 1,060. Official results showed that he polled 535 votes today, compared to 467 for Alexander Vlasov, a non-voting member of the Communist Party's ruling Politburo who was Gorbachev's choice for the job. A third candidate, cooperative business director Valentin Tsoi, received 11 votes.

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