AS Soviet progressives press the fight for a multi-party system in the USSR, thousands of people at the grass roots are acting as if such a system already existed. This is not just in the Baltics, where Communist Party hegemony is being challenged by nationalistic local parliaments, but in Russia, the most important republic, where local groups are forming ``voters clubs'' which look for all the world like Western political parties. Irina Bogantseva, a Moscow social studies teacher, got involved in politics last spring when a policeman visited her apartment and asked her son how his parents were voting in the elections. Did they back the Party candidate or opposition leader Boris Yeltsin? ``I was very angry,'' said Ms. Bogantseva, a Party member, ``so I went to the Yeltsin group and told them I wanted to help.''
She gave out leaflets, put up posters and organized about 100 people. After the elections, they wrote by-laws for their club, named it ``For Democratic Elections,'' and asked for legal status. Officials responded, ``We already have a club; you can join it.''
But ``For Democratic Elections'' continued, and Bogantseva now serves on the executive committee of the Association of Moscow Voters Clubs, organized at a noisy meeting at Moscow University last summer. It unites independent clubs such as hers, groups associated with Yeltsin and other candidates for the Congress of Deputies, and city-wide organizations such as the socialist Moscow People's Front - set up to investigate Stalin's crimes and to build a museum honoring his victims. Participants seem evenly divided between reformist Communists and non-Communists. They represent groups with thousands of members.
One club was organized by a neighborhood self-government council, an invention of Sergei Druganov, a specialist in the economy of sports who is also a Party member. He said two-thirds of the 35,000 adults in his housing complex south of Moscow cast votes for the council's representatives. The local Party group won't deal with them, but it has had discussions with the Moscow City Soviet on local environmental problems and the lack of schools and cultural facilities. ``Children study in three shifts,'' he explained.
``The problem is that not one deputy from the district or city level lives here,'' Druganov said. Until now, representatives have been nominated by workplaces; they don't have to live in the districts they represent. That will change in the 1990 elections, and voters will eliminate the old deputies, he said: ``We will promote only our candidates, and the people will support us.''
In Leningrad, the Popular Front unites Communists, social democrats, members of the pro-capitalist Democratic Union, environmentalists, and other progressives. It has an elected board, a newspaper, and voters clubs in the city's 24 districts.
Groups organized around environmental issues, such as the Socio-Ecological Union (with 300 branches) are also focusing on elections. A Social Democratic party, whose leaders live in Moscow, held a week-long training school in Tallin, Estonia. Oleg Rumyantsev, a sociologist, said his group's philosophy was modeled on the West German Social Democratic Party.
In September, a conference in Moscow founded a Russia-wide voters club. Lev Shemayev, advisor to Yeltsin, said, ``Our goal is to create as many clubs as possible in the districts and factories...''
The importance of these clubs is that, even without the abolition of Article 6 that bans other parties, such groups can organize slates for elections and work for candidates. Sergei Stankevich, a leading progressive member of the Congress of Deputies, told me that local elections were ``one of the most important turning points in our current political history. If we win them, we shall have a firm social base for reforms.''
The clubs are a growing force, not only in electoral campaigns, but as a lobby to back the progressive deputies and promote grass-roots initiatives for reform. They are an essential element in the construction of ``civil society,'' the new web of citizen groups not controlled by the government or the Party.
Westerners tend to ignore grass-roots movements unless they make the news. But these new Soviet political groups should not be underestimated. They may show that democracy from below is a powerful counterweight to efforts to limit change from above.