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Russia has never had an election with stakes this high. For the first time in their 1,000-year history, Russians have a real choice about what kind of country they will have.

Sunday's presidential election is not about fine shadings and subtle differences. The outcome will shape the future of the largest nation on the planet, a nuclear power spanning two continents and 11 time zones.Five years after the Soviet collapse, Russia is still a country on the cusp, wavering between reform and retreat, between an unclear future and a troubled communist past.

About 106 million people are eligible to vote. Some find the prospect of such a fateful choice daunting, and they'll stay away - or mark "against everyone" on their ballots. But the majority - perhaps 70 percent or more - are expected to vote.

The first polling stations opened in Chukotka in the Far East at 1 p.m. MDT on Saturday; the last are to close at 1 p.m. MDT on Sunday. Absentee balloting and voting on ships and in some remote regions began earlier.

About 1,500 Russian troops serving in the NATO-led peace force in Bosnia voted Saturday, as did the seven Russians held hostage in Afghanistan for the past 10 months by a Muslim fundamentalist group.

Partial preliminary returns from the nation's 93,500 voting stations are expected Sunday night. Experts say turnout is a critical factor, especially for President Boris Yeltsin.

But the outcome is far from certain.

Will Russians give Yeltsin and his promise to turn Russia into a capitalist democracy another chance? Will they choose Communist Party leader Gennady Zyu-ga-nov and his nostalgia-soaked vision of a secure superpower? Or will they choose one of the eight others, who stand somewhere in between?

Most polls say Yeltsin and Zyuganov are likely to face each other in a runoff next month, and they give Yeltsin the edge in a second round.

The race had many trappings of a Western-style campaign, but with dark warnings of fraud and violence. Few expect Sunday's election to produce a clear winner and a graceful loser.

Yeltsin, 65, went into the race as an ailing underdog nipping at Zyu-ganov's heels.

Russians were fed up with the unfairness of reforms that impoverished millions and enriched a few. They were fed up with crime, corruption and the war in Chechnya. Zyuganov promised Soviet-style security and a new era of national greatness.

But a suddenly revitalized Yeltsin launched a steamroller campaign fueled by every imaginable advantage of incumbency.

He raided the budget and the Central Bank to pay for extravagant campaign promises. The national media became a cheerleader that gave him slavish, lavish prime-time coverage.

Perhaps most important, Yeltsin portrayed himself as the candidate of stability and the Communists as the agents of upheaval.

Some analysts say Yeltsin peaked too early and promised too much. Many people never got the back wages that were one of his central campaign promises.

But even on Saturday, when the campaign was officially over and political ads were banned, Yeltsin was still using his office to hand out money and get on the news. Films with a strong anti-communist message, like the Academy Award-winning "Burnt by the Sun," were being aired on television over the weekend.

TV showed Yeltsin handing out state arts prizes to leading cultural figures and reported two new decrees promising money for hard-hit regions of Siberia, where the Communists are strong.

In contrast to the flash and thunder of the later Yeltsin campaign, the Communist campaign - like the Communist candidate - remained stodgy.

Zyuganov did little to reach out to the centrist and undecided vote that is vital to victory.

The most important element of his campaign - the grass-roots, door-to-door work by thousands of the party faithful - was largely invisible.

If Yeltsin and Zyuganov go into a runoff, Zyuganov will have to redefine the race on his own terms. So far, Yeltsin has controlled the agenda and the pace.

"It's been a debate about the future, not the past," said political analyst Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a prominent think tank. "That's why Yeltsin's going to win and Zyuganov's going to lose."