Citizens of the vast Russian republic, breaking from 70 years of Communist Party rule, elected radical reformer Boris Yeltsin as their first president and voted to change the name of the city of Leningrad back to its original, St. Petersburg, officials announced Thursday. Yeltsin, who quit the party last year,won around 60 percent of the vote in Wednesday's six-man race, election officials said. More than 70 percent of the republic's 104-million registered voters cast ballots.
As the first popularly 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 political institutions and a Western-style market economy.
Yeltsin's overwhelming popular election in a republic that is the heart of the Soviet Union should help tilt the political balance decisively in favor of reforms and illustrates the public's increasing contempt for the party and Communist ideology.
His election to the Russian presidency is also the most dramatic moment in an incredible political odyssey.
He rose to membership in the Communist Party's ruling Politburo as an ardent supporter of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms and as a self-proclaimed destroyer of political orthodoxy, but was fired and began the climb again in a country where political comebacks were unknown. He has helped to undermine the foundations of the old political culture and to set the agenda for a new one.
The election comes at a time when Yeltsin appears to have settled into a wary alliance with Gorbachev after years of operatic rivalry and personal recriminations. Gorbachev, who has never faced a popular vote, recognizes Yeltsin's vastly greater popularity. And Yeltsin recognizes that Gorbachev, who was for years the country's singular leader and often tried to placate hard-line forces to survive politically, is still in charge of the country's key institutions.
In late April, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the leaders of eight other Soviet republics _ there are a total of 15 _ signed an agreement that ended months of anxiety about a reactionary swing in the Kremlin and formed the basis for a new union of sovereign states.
The Russian republic is an almost boundless dominion. It accounts for more than half of the population of the Soviet Union and more than three-quarters of its territory, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
Yeltsin's views, once regarded as too radical even to debate, will now be the serious counterpoint to the proposals put forward by Gorbachev on the pace of political and economic reform. He will speak not only as the president of Russia, the largest of the Soviet republics, but as the only one of the 10 leaders participating in the forum, including Gorbachev, who has such an unequivocal popular mandate.
Last month, as she waited among a crowd of 10,000 for a Yeltsin campaign appearance, Margarita Oreshnikova, a retiree in the Russian town of Tula, said of Yeltsin: "If he comes to power, he'll change the whole system. All our hopes are pinned only on him."
Here is how Yeltsin has promised to change the system:
He plans to seek control from the central government of those enterprises that operate on Russia's territory _ and then begin privatizing them, selling them to investors, giving their workers and managers control, turning them over to regional and local authorities to operate.
He wants to free entrepreneurs from the myriad of government regulations that prohibit deals as anti-socialist although they promise to bring economic growth.
And he intends to push land reform, breaking up unprofitable state and collective farms and giving the land to those ready to work it as individual farmers.
Yeltsin also had a broad agenda for political reform _ devolution of power, breaking the decades-old system of Soviet centralization, development of real pluralism with an end to the continuing monopoly that the Communist Party has at many levels of government and an end to party control of the military and security forces.
He has pledged to hold the first direct elections for the leadership posts of all regional, city and district councils, effectively purging Communist Party conservatives he accuses of sabotaging reform.
In Washington, the White House praised the 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 referred to Yeltsin as a "lightweight" and were 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 Baltic states and elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
Eduard Shevardnadze, who quit his post as 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."
Results were preliminary, but they showed that Yeltsin easily outdistanced Communist rivals such as former prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, his nearest rival with about 15 percent of the votes in many Russian cities, according to independent Soviet news agencies.
Yeltsin won 75 percent of the votes in Moscow and between 60 and 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.
The job of counting tens of millions of paper ballots in such a huge republic is immense, and the official news agency Tass said results will not be considered final until June 22. But the Central Election Commission said Yeltsin has won a majority and a second round of voting would not take place.
_ Information from Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times was used in this report.