Yeltsin Elected President of Russia

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By David Remnick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 14, 1991

MOSCOW, JUNE 13 -- Citizens of the vast Russian republic, breaking with 70 years of Communist Party rule, elected radical reformist Boris Yeltsin as their first president today, while the people of Leningrad voted to change the name of their city back to its czarist original, St. Petersburg.

Yeltsin, who quit the party last year, won about 60 percent of the vote in the six-man race, election officials said. As the first directly elected president in Russia's 1,000-year history, Yeltsin said he will dedicate his five-year term of office to the creation of democratic institutions and a Western-style market economy.

The overwhelming show of popular support for Yeltsin in a republic that is the heart of the Soviet Union should help tilt the balance decisively in favor of further political and economic reform here, and it illustrates the increasing public contempt for the Communist Party and its ideology.

For Yeltsin, his election as leader of a republic of 150 million people stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean is a singular moment in an astonishing political odyssey. From provincial Communist bureaucrat, he rose to membership in the party's ruling Politburo as an ardent backer of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's reform drive and self-proclaimed destroyer of political orthodoxy. But he was dismissed in disgrace 3 1/2 years ago after a strident clash with hard-line colleagues in the party leadership and began a comeback as a populist politician in a system where political comebacks were unheard of. Along the way, he has helped undermine the foundations of the old political culture and set the agenda for the new.

Yeltsin's election comes at a time when he appears to have settled into a wary alliance with Gorbachev after years of political rivalry and personal recriminations. Gorbachev, who has never faced a popular vote, clearly recognizes Yeltsin's vastly greater popularity, while Yeltsin understands that Gorbachev is still in charge of the country's key institutions.

In late April, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the leaders of eight of the 14 other Soviet republics signed an agreement that ended months of apprehension about a reactionary swing in the Kremlin and formed the basis for a new union of sovereign states.

In Washington, the White House praised the democratic election in Russia and announced that Yeltsin has been invited to meet with President Bush next Thursday. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the election was "a good sign in the sense of reform and democracy. Elections are always a symbol, a hallmark of the democratic process. This is the first election in Russia, and we're happy to see it."

As recently as last year, top-ranking Bush administration officials were referring to Yeltsin as a "lightweight" and seemed careful not to show the Russian leader too much attention for fear of offending Gorbachev. In recent months, however, the White House has gradually widened its scope of contacts with leaders in Russia, the Soviet Baltic republics and elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

Eduard Shevardnadze, who quit his post as Soviet foreign minister last December warning of an approaching dictatorship, told reporters in Bonn that Yeltsin's victory would have "a positive effect, only positive. Yeltsin has a big following, the support of the majority. Now there is no doubt he must fulfill that trust."

Preliminary official results showed that Yeltsin easily outdistanced such Communist rivals as former Soviet premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, his nearest rival, who was expected to win about 15 percent of the vote in many Russian cities.

Yeltsin won an estimated 75 percent of the vote in Moscow and 60-to-70 percent in other industrial cities, but he also ran well in farming areas where Ryzhkov had hoped to score at least enough to force a runoff election.

Vote totals were not immediately available for other candidates, including former Soviet interior minister Vadim Bakatin and previously obscure nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who appeared to be doing better than expected.


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