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RUSSIAN POLLS GRABBING ATTENTION

Public opinion polls on the outcome of Russia's presidential election are being breathlessly followed around the world - even though the pollsters are rarely right and sometimes widely off the mark.

With so much power at stake, pollsters have acquired an almost mythical aura. Hardly a day passes without a new poll, and most now put Boris Yeltsin and his Communist opponent Gennady Zyuganov about even.Ahead by a hair, behind by a thread - the reliability of the polls is becoming a hotly contested issue in the June 16 election. And so far, Russia's fledgling polling profession has a poor track record.

Public opinion polls were taboo in the Soviet era. Social and political surveys were kept secret and often were conducted by the KGB for the country's leaders.

Public opinion polls only took off as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In their first major test two years later, during parliamentary elections, most pollsters bombed - some miserably.

Almost without exception, the polls failed to reveal the depth of support for ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who won nearly a quarter of the vote.

The pollsters did better in the December 1995 parliamentary vote, but their performance was still uneven.

While most pre-election polls put the victorious Communists in first place, most greatly overestimated support for retired Gen. Alexander Lebed as well as for the highly touted Women of Russia movement. Reform movements all did worse than predicted.

Much more is at stake, however, in Russia's second-ever election for president.

Russia's political system gives the president vast powers, which makes reformers and many foreign governments nervous about the possibility the Communists could return to the Kremlin - this time democratically.

The race is so tight that every new poll is seized on as ammunition by the major candidates and scrutinized for clues as to the real outcome.

"Never has so much attention been paid to polls" in Russia, Yuri Levada, head of the Russian Center for Public Opinion, said with delight at a news conference Tuesday.

Levada and other major pollsters are in big demand, with candidates and the news media among their big customers.

Poll results often vary widely, with the Izvestia newspaper comparing them Monday to fortunetelling in a scathing article questioning their accuracy.