MOSCOW, July 4 -- President Boris Yeltsin appeared headed for victory Thursday in his bid for re-election as preliminary results streamed in from the second and deciding round of Russia's presidential race. With two-thirds of the nationwide vote from Wednesday's runoff counted, Yeltsin was comfortably ahead, with 54.5 percent to Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov's 39.4 percent, the Central Electoral Commission said. Thanks to a generally wealthy, cosmopolitan electorate, Yeltsin enjoyed an even wider lead in the capital, with 78 percent of Muscovites voting for him and only 18 percent casting ballots for Zyuganov. In St. Petersburg, the former imperial capital, more than 74 percent voted for the current president while the leader of the reincarnated Communist Party mustered a relatively feeble 21 percent. The earliest vote counts from regions on the Pacific Coast and east of Siberia gave Yeltsin an average percentage in the 60s, while Zyuganov trailed with an average of less than 30 percent. Overall, the results suggested resounding approval for the Westernizing economic reforms Yeltsin has pursued and a thumbs-down for Zyuganov's vision of resurrecting much of the Soviet system. One of Yeltsin's earliest wide leads was in the Chukotka peninsula, separated from Alaska by the Bering Strait, where the incumbent had garnered 77 percent of the vote against a mere 16 percent for Zyuganov. But in rural areas of the Siberian coal-mining Kemerovo region, Zyuganov was ahead with 49 percent, while Yeltsin was not far behind with 44 percent. Yeltsin was forced into a runoff battle after winning by just a slim margin in the first round June 16, taking 35 percent of the vote to Zyuganov's 32 percent.
With a glut of other candidates swept aside, Russia's 108 million registered voters were left to decide between Yeltsin or Zyuganov, a choice between westernizing reforms and a return to some aspects of the Soviet way of life. Yeltsin's team realized in the first round that a higher turnout would favor their man -- so the Kremlin and the electoral commission spent much time and money exhorting Russians to get out and vote. By the close of polls, nationwide turnout had exceeded 63 percent, and more importantly for Yeltsin, almost 70 percent of voters in the relatively progressive cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg went to the polls. 'I think there's no way back, we can only go forward, Zyuganov is a return to the past and Yeltsin is the road into the future,' said Vladimir Valentinovich, 44, a Soviet KGB veteran in Moscow. 'I served for 20-odd years in the KGB, and I know what Zyuganov is and I know what the Communist Party is.' Nevertheless, turnout remained the focus for Yeltsin, whose younger supporters have been seen as more apathetic about voting compared to the disciplined stalwarts of the older generation who vote communist. Dmitry Oreshkin, chief analyst at the Central Electoral Commission, told the Itar-Tass news agency that despite fears of apathy, Yeltsin's supporters had shown greater participation in the ballot than in the first round. There was no significant increase in Zyuganov's electorate, who were more active voters last time, Oreshkin said. 'I work here 12 hours at 25,000 rubles ($5) a day, this is not a life,' said Olga Petrovna, a 61-year-old cleaning woman at a sidewalk cafe in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. 'It probably won't make a difference, but I'm voting for Zyuganov.' The first of 93,939 polling stations closed at 10 p.m. in the far eastern Chukotka peninsula, nine hours ahead of Moscow. In Kaliningrad, tucked between Poland and Lithuania, polls closed a full 24 hours later. Russians were choosing their first elected president: Yeltsin was chosen president of Russia in 1991 when it was still a Soviet republic, and he assumed the mantle of superpower leader later that year when the Soviet Union collapsed around Mikhail Gorbachev. Unlike the dynamic figure who climbed onto a tank in August 1991 to rally Russians against an attempted coup, Yeltsin has since suffered heart trouble and allegations of heavy drinking that have marred his image. (With additional reporting by Ron Laurenzo in Moscow and Philip Johnston in Nizhny Novgorod)