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How to Read Russia's Vote Tally: Watch How the Also-Rans Fare

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The most significant result of yesterday's presidential election in Russia will not be who wins, but who comes third.

Barring a stunning upset, neither incumbent President Boris Yeltsin nor Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov, will have gathered the absolute majority needed for a first-round victory. And when they go head to head in the July runoff, their fates will hinge on how many votes they can scrape from the barrel of support for the eight eliminated candidates.

Here is a guide to what to look for in the first-round results, as pointers to the crucial second round next month:

*If Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the provocative ultranationalist, comes in third - and especially if he shows strongly - Mr. Yeltsin is in trouble. Mr. Zhirinovsky's supporters, who are deeply disenchanted with the status quo, appear far more likely to pick Mr. Zyuganov over the president if that were the choice.

*If Grigory Yavlinsky, a young free-market economist, captures third place, Yeltsin will be smiling. Mr. Yavlinsky's reform-minded voters may be unhappy with the government's recent half-heartedness over democratic and economic change, but their anti-Communist convictions will drive them willy-nilly into the president's camp.

*If Gen. Alexander Lebed, a no-nonsense law-and-order candidate, comes from behind to finish strongly, as some polls have suggested, the outlook is less certain. General Lebed himself has said he expects as many as 80 percent of his voters to turn to Zyuganov in a second round, drawn by his tirades against corruption.

But Yeltsin campaign strategists are by no means giving up on this potentially rich source of support. The president has held a number of meetings with Lebed in recent weeks, and rumors are rife that the general might be offered a top government post between rounds to tempt him and his voters into Yeltsin's camp.

This first presidential election since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union is effectively a referendum on Russia's difficult transition to a market economy.

Yeltsin's advisers say that he needs to be at least five points clear of Zyuganov, and garnering around 35 percent of the first-round vote, to feel comfortable.

The last opinion polls published before the election gave him a much wider lead than that, but independent analysts - and even Kremlin staffers - give the figures little credence.

Some suspect that not only are the polls inaccurate for technical reasons - a failure to sample the more remote parts of Russia, where opposition support is strongest, for example - but that they have deliberately been made overoptimistic under pressure from authorities.

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