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Communists would have little success re-establishing a communist state in Russia if they win the elections, but they might destroy the country trying, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow says.

Academics, businesspeople and journalists mulled Russia's election prospects Wednesday at a conference sponsored by The Associated Press and Columbia University's Harriman Institute.Although voting starts June 16, a runoff is expected, and political horse-trading over the appointment of a prime minister could end in yet another set of elections if the old Parliament doesn't like the pres-i-dent's nominee.

Analyzing the results of the voting last December that saw the Communists take control of Parliament's lower house, Yale University professor Yitzhak Brudny said there is no way that President Boris Yeltsin can win outright on June 16.

But neither can Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, despite the support of what is still the country's only well-organized political party, Brudny said.

"The election is for Communists to lose and Yeltsin to win," he concluded.

Alexander Tsipko, a former adviser to the Communist Party's Central Committee in Soviet days, said the very idea of voting for or against a man in Yeltsin's position is unprecedented.

"For the first time in Russian history, we elect a czar," he said. "Nicholas II did not have the same powers as Yeltsin."

He said Zyuganov is strong only in provincial cities, where much of the apparatus of the old Communist Party has yet to rust away as it has in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The Communist Party has sought to counter voter fears that its candidate would pull the economy back under state control if elected, but Zyuganov himself has been vague on specifics.

Jack Matlock, the former U.S. ambassador, said he was surprised on a recent trip to find old friends expecting the Communists to try to go back to the old ways if Yeltsin's unpopularity lands their man in the Kremlin after all.