MOSCOW — RUSSIAN politicians kicked off their hastily arranged campaign season over the weekend and sought to cloak themselves in the mantle of democracy. But they are defining the term in various ways.
Several political organizations held campaign meetings over the weekend, the most important of which was Russia's Choice, a relatively liberal umbrella movement headed by Economics Minister Yegor Gaidar and backed by President Boris Yeltsin.
In the wake of the failed neo-Communist and ultranationalist uprising in early October, various government luminaries stressed the need to ensure rule-of-law and free enterprise at a Russia's Choice conference.
``The foundation of such a political bloc is extremely important, especially in these conditions of confrontation between democratic and communo-fascist forces, so that voters don't have to struggle with the question: Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?'' Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said of Russia's Choice.
But for all the rhetoric, the actions of the Yeltsin administration, which Russia's Choice ardently supports, have not always been consistent with the democratic values espoused by the movement. Indeed, some recent moves, particularly bans on the opposition press, differ little from those employed under the Communists.
The inconsistencies underscore the difficulty of democratization in Russia, a nation that lacks experience in parliamentary government. Some leaders of democratically oriented movements appear to have only a thin grasp of democratic principles. Others seem better informed, but say extraordinary times require undemocratic methods to reach a democratic end.
The Russian government's ban on 15 opposition newspapers, as well as an order to change the editorial leadership of two others -
Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya - has generated the most controversy. The bans were outgrowths of earlier suspensions imposed after the crushing of the rebellion on Oct. 4.
Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya are not allowed to publish until they comply with the government order. But their editors say they will fight the measure in court, arguing the government is violating Russia's law on press. The law states that a newspaper can be closed only after two warnings followed by judicial proceedings. Gennady Seleznyov, Pravda's editor, says his newspaper never received a warning from the government. He adds that the bans were an attempt to intimidate other publications to refrain from criticizing the government.
``What is happening now with press and television recalls the Stalin-Brezhnev period,'' says Pyotr Abovin-Yegides, a dissident during the Communist era who served three prison terms during Leonid Brezhnev's rule as Communist Party boss.
``Democracy is not just a matter of casting a vote - we had that under Stalin,'' he continues. ``Democracy means the right of people to hear different opinions.''
At the Russia's Choice conference, acting Press and Information Minister Vladimir Shumeiko brushed aside criticism over the bans. ``The principles of democracy and the free market are all the same ideology,'' he said on Friday. ``I think the state should have a powerful government-owned mass media to promote this ideology.''
The debate over democratic freedoms is not limited to the media. Indeed, Democratic Russia, perhaps the most radical organization within the Russia's Choice bloc, has called for a ban on political rallies and demonstrations to last at least until Nov. 15, less than a month before planned December parliamentary elections. Democratic Russia leaders say the measure is needed to preserve stability.
Controversy is also building around President Yeltsin's decision to have a new Russian constitution approved by a popular referendum - coinciding with the Dec. 12 legislative polls - instead of having the new parliament adopt it. Yeltsin says a plebiscite is the most democratic method of adoption. But critics say a hurry-up, yes-no vote on such a complicated issue as the constitution is bound to create future problems.
Radical Yeltsin supporters justify the blitz toward democracy, saying that if the parliament loyalists had seized power Oct. 3, they would have crushed pro-Yeltsin forces.
Some moderate Yeltsin supporters, such as adviser Sergei Stankevich, admit there have been abuses. ``It's not democratic,'' he says, ``but it's unavoidable.''
The democrats must crack down to send a signal to neo-Communists and ultranationalists that any future attempt to reverse reform will be severely dealt with, Mr. Stankevich says. Such reasoning, however, could serve as the basis for protracted political tumult, some political analysts say.
A few say Russia's democratic experiment may start to follow the path of the French Revolution of 200 years ago. Indeed, the slogan unveiled at the Russia's Choice meeting - Freedom, Property, Legality - is somewhat reminiscent of the French revolutionary motto of ``Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.''
At the same time, signs of a split between radicals and moderates in the democratic camp are already manifesting themselves. According to Dmitry Gudimenko, a political scientist at Moscow's Institute of World Economy and Foreign Relations, the moderates are more numerous, but the advantage of numbers is outweighed by the fact that Yeltsin is in the radical camp.
If the split widens, the radicals may turn on the moderates, utilizing the thinking ``if you aren't with us, you're against us'' used by the Jacobins during the French Revolution's ``reign of terror,'' Mr. Gudimenko says.
``Of course, things won't culminate with the guillotine here,'' he says. ``But the radicals don't have much popular support and to sustain themselves in power they may resort to more dictatorial methods.''