Yeltsin Elected President of RussiaBy David Remnick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 14, 1991; Page A01
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 percent 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.
The Russian republic is an almost boundless expanse, accounting for more than half the population of the Soviet Union and more than three-quarters of its land mass.
The job of counting tens of millions of paper ballots over such a huge territory is immense, and the official Soviet news agency Tass said that results will not be considered final until June 22. But the chairman of the Central Election Commission, Vasily Kazakov, declared that Yeltsin had won a majority and that "a second round in the elections for the president of Russia apparently will not take place."
In Leningrad, the former czarist capital, 55 percent of the voters elected to restore the name St. Petersburg to the city, although such a change still faces other political obstacles. The result of the referendum, residents said, reflects not nostalgia for the czars, but rather a rebuke to the memory of Bolshevik leader Lenin and seven decades of Communist rule.
Although he endorsed no candidates in the Russian presidential race, Gorbachev had urged voters in Leningrad to vote against the name change. Czar Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, and the poet Alexander Pushkin pronounced it Russia's "Window on the West." Lenin hated the city and quickly moved the capital to Moscow after the revolution. The city was given his name after his death in 1924.
Reform advocates in the Soviet Union's two biggest cities also scored impressive election victories over Communist Party rivals. Gavril Popov, an economist, won election as mayor of Moscow, and Anatoly Sobchak, a professor of law, was elected mayor of Leningrad. Both men -- each of whom had been serving as chairman of their respective city councils -- won more than 60 percent of the popular vote for their posts, and both have vowed to reshape city government along U.S. lines.
Asked about today's election results, Popov said: "Russia has entered the civilized age."
Ever since Lenin used soldiers to outlaw the popularly elected Constituent Assembly in 1918, the Communists have ruled the Soviet Union with little effective opposition. Rival parties were outlawed, and even intra-party factions were declared illegal.
Under tremendous popular pressure, Gorbachev and the party ended the Communists' constitutional guarantee of power in March 1990. And Yeltsin, who began his political career in the Ural Mountains city of Sverdlovsk as a party apparatchik, has won much of his support from such new groups as the Democratic Party of Russia and the independent Democratic Russia movement.
Non-Communists are now in control of governments in Russia, the Baltic republics, Georgia, Moldavia and Armenia. One of the most prominent figures in the Russian legislature, dissident Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin, said that one of Yeltsin's first acts as Russian president would be to outlaw Communist Party cells in factories and government offices.
Yeltsin could not match his 89 percent vote tally in 1989 when he won a seat in the Soviet legislature, but the returns this time are impressive nevertheless, considering that he was facing the opposition of well-organized Communist Party machines in the provinces and the military.
Communist newspapers such as Pravda and Sovyetskaya Rossiya waged an all-out negative campaign against Yeltsin in the last few days before the vote, accusing him of everything from ties to the Italian mafia to hands-on participation in a money-laundering scheme involving tens of millions of rubles.
Yeltsin won 90 percent of the vote in his hometown of Sverdlovsk, despite expectations that Ryzhkov and army candidate Gen. Albert Makashov would score heavily in military districts, Yeltsin won 81 percent of the vote in the Pacific and Indian Ocean naval fleets and 74 percent among officers and students at a training school for Soviet Interior Ministry staff.
Like Gorbachev, he began his career as a provincial Communist Party bureaucrat, working in relative obscurity for years before being tapped for leadership. He came to Moscow in 1985, the same year Gorbachev assumed power, and was named head of the party organization in the capital. His subsequent public attacks on more hard-line members of the leadership cost him his job in 1987, but they also helped ruin the party's Oz-like illusion of ideological cohesion.
After being fired from the Politburo in 1988 and publicly humiliated by Gorbachev and others in the Communist hierarchy, Yeltsin recovered from a serious case of nervous exhaustion to win seats in the legislatures of the Soviet Union and the Russian republic as a populist hero.
He became a political folk legend, daring to criticize Gorbachev and other Kremlin leaders by name and using his rumbling voice and elastic face to connect with the common man in a style reminiscent of U.S. grass-roots campaign traditions.