Russian Vote Puts Putin on Presidential Track

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Russian voters clearly want a strongman, but the battle to be that strongman may be fought primarily in Chechnya. Sunday's Russian parliamentary election saw an unlikely surge by a party cobbled together only last month with the backing of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, signaling that the war in Chechnya has turned the former head of the intelligence service into the man to beat in next summer's presidential election. The Communists held a predictable lead with around 28 percent with most of the vote counted Monday, but the Unity party backed by Putin was running a close second with an unexpectedly high 24 percent, while a second pro-Kremlin party, the Union of Right-Wing Forces, had almost 9 percent. The Fatherland-All Russia coalition headed by former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkhov, once favored to finish a strong second, looked set to win only 11 percent of the vote.

"The result shows how easy it is under the aegis of democratic institutions in Russia to create a top-down pro-Kremlin party from scratch and then, with huge infusions of cash and a stunningly popular patriotic war in Chechnya, build it into a front-runner," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. The result, in which upward of 70 percent of voters appeared to favor parties backing presidential candidates of varying authoritarian stripe (both Putin and Primakov, remember, are products of the KGB), looks set to give President Boris Yeltsin his friendliest legislature since the collapse of communism. But Putin's bid to be the boss Russian voters clearly crave is based almost entirely on the war in Chechnya, where Moscow's troops have taken control of much of the rebel republic while suffering minimal losses. But the Chechen guerrilla forces have for the most part simply retreated into the mountains. It is the next phase of the war, in which the Chechens seek to make Moscow pay an unacceptably high price in casualties for their territorial gains while the Russians hope to choke off Chechen supply lines, that may decide Russia's next president.