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.
Several conservative lawmakers said that some Communist Party loyalists may have ended up voting for Yeltsin because of strong grass-roots pressure and the threat of a dangerous public backlash if another candidate were chosen. Hundreds of telegrams have arrived every day at the Kremlin palace where the legislators are meeting, appealing to them to vote for Yeltsin.
The stop-Yeltsin campaign was badly bungled. Gorbachev has proved that he is an exceptionally adroit politician when it comes to backstage maneuvering in the ruling Communist Party, and he is also good at pushing his program through the national legislature, where party loyalists command a solid majority. But he seemed to lack the more subtle political skills needed to build a winning coalition in what was essentially a hung parliament.
The official Communist Party bloc and the radical Democratic Russia movement each control roughly one-third of the seats in the legislature. The remaining seats are held by independents and members of the agrarian lobby who might have been prepared to support a more attractive official candidate than the colorless Vlasov, the outgoing Russian premier.
Vlasov bowed out of the race at Gorbachev's suggestion last week when it appeared he had little chance of winning, allowing a hard-liner from southern Russia to take his place. Yesterday, he jumped back in, leading some of his own supporters to grumble that they were being treated like puppets by the party leadership.
Some members said that Yeltsin's election could help Gorbachev implement radical economic reforms if the two leaders can find a way of cooperating with each other. As one of the few politicians in Russia with a mass following, Yeltsin could help mobilize popular support for the painful transition to a market economy that the government regards as economically necessary but politically dangerous.
"This is a great chance for Russia," said Nikolai Abramov, a student clutching a red-white-and-blue Russian flag outside the Kremlin. "Everybody knows that economic reform is going to mean hardships for ordinary people. Only a leader who has mass support can take that kind of risk."
Yeltsin has denounced the economic program announced last week by the government as a half-measure that will fail to resolve the Soviet Union's underlying problems. Instead, he has proposed a sweeping denationalization program, including the sale of state farms and factories to private individuals.
The national legislature today postponed a vote until next week on the economic reform package proposed by Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov. Reformist members accused the government of triggering panic buying by announcing food price increases without providing sufficient guarantees that a free market will be introduced.
Rejecting the criticism, Ryzhkov said that the radicals were "fooling the people" by suggesting that it was possible to move toward a market economy without price rises. The prime minister has threatened to resign his post unless he receives full legislative support.
In impromptu remarks to journalists today, Yeltsin said he would try to establish direct relations with the Baltic republic of Lithuania despite its March 11 declaration of independence. Lithuania has been forced to close many factories, putting 100,000 workers temporarily out of work, because of the shortage of energy supplies caused by a Soviet economic embargo.
The gravity of the domestic problems confronting Gorbachev was underlined by his decision to leave behind a key aide, Alexander Yakovlev, who frequently accompanies him on foreign trips.