Russian Jews voice guarded optimism for a Yeltsin win

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Most Russian Jews had supported democratic-leaning candidates. Some community leaders voiced optimism about an ultimate Boris Yeltsin victory in the runoff, which could be held as early as July 3.

With 98 percent of the ballots counted, Yeltsin had secured 35 percent of the vote. His closest rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, won 32 percent of the vote. Surprise third-place finisher former General Alexander Lebed took 15 percent, and in an effort to counter nationalist rivals Yeltsin promptly named this hero of the Afghanistan war to lead his Security Council, in charge of the police and military.

Lebed has called for a crackdown on organized crime and street crime, major concerns for many Russians.

Liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky of the Yabloko bloc was reported to be the fourth with about 7 percent, followed by the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who captured less than 6 percent of the vote.

Russian Jewish Congress executive vice president Alexander Osovtsov called Yeltsin's lead in the first round "a huge success," given the president's extremely low ratings in public opinion polls some three months ago.

But, he said, "what could guarantee a Yeltsin victory in the second round is his political alliance with Lebed."

Nevertheless, others are voicing caution about election results.

"The results leave many unanswered questions as to what will happen during the second round," said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

"There are no guarantees that those who support Lebed will throw their support behind" Yeltsin now that the two are aligned, Levin said.

Indeed, Alexander Lieberman, director of the Moscow bureau of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, believes the majority of those who cast their votes for Lebed are likely to support Zyuganov in the second round.

In the wake of the election Zyuganov also tried to lure Lebed. But Lebed, who has criticized Yeltsin's handling of the war in Chechnya, blasted communism in general as well.

"We're through with communism," Lebed told reporters. "It's a nice idea: equality, brotherhood, happiness…let the myth go live somewhere else. We've had it up to here."

But Lieberman and other local experts see Lebed as one who is able to draw both Communist supporters and those who have historically voted for ultranationalist Zhirinovsky.

"Although Lebed is an outspoken anti-Communist, his campaign's motto, `Truth and order' reminds me very much of the Communist or Zhirinovsky rhetoric," said Lieberman.

But some Jews feel that even a Yeltsin victory in July is no certain remedy for the country's economic and social ills.

"Russia's democratic future will depend on Yeltsin's entourage," said Osovtsov, who like Lebed has sharply criticized Yeltsin for his policy in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Yeltsin has also been seen as giving in to ultranationalist pressures in recent months, a phenomenon that some fear could continue.

The recent suspension of the Jewish Agency for Israel's operating license is one such example. A June 15 deadline for new accreditation passed this weekend, and it is not certain when a decision on the renewal will occur.

A majority of Jewish voters interviewed at Moscow polling stations Sunday said they had voted for Yeltsin, while liberal economist Yavlinsky also had some support.

"I had to vote for Yeltsin," said engineer Mikhail Abramov, 44, at a central Moscow polling station.

"Under other circumstances I would rather vote for Yavlinsky, who didn't start the war in Chechnya," Abramov said, indicating that because Yavlinsky was unlikely to make it to the second round, he did not want to waste his vote.

For Ilya Faynshtein, a 30-year-old English language teacher at a Moscow high school, election day was itself meaningful as a tribute to democracy.

"I don't know what will happen after the elections, but I'm convinced that today democracy in Russia is taking a big step forward," she said.

At one of Moscow's polling places, an elderly Jewish woman ran headlong into the strict rules surrounding balloting.

Sarah Gordon tried to convince the chairman of the local election committee that her 89-year-old husband had made a mistake when he put a mark next to Zhirinovsky's name while filling out his ballot.

Zhirinovsky followed Yeltsin on the ballot's list of 10 candidates.

Gordon, a former prisoner of the Minsk ghetto, claimed her husband's vote was a result of poor vision and shaky hands. She wanted the official to correct the ballot.

To Gordon's great distress, the official turned down her request, saying it would be a breach of election law.

International observers said Monday that there had been no breaches of voting procedures or election laws during Sunday's polling.

Among more than 1,000 observers accredited by the Russian government was an Israeli delegation of four diplomats and international experts.