Weighing Russia's Vote

DESPITE all the hoopla surrounding Sunday's parliamentary elections in Russia, including talk of big Communist gains, they are not likely to change the political situation there much.

For one thing, 225 of the 450 seats will be filled, not from party lists, but by candidates elected in single-member districts. Many of these candidates are local personalities who have no party affiliation. Their political orientations will not become clear until the next Duma, or lower house of parliament, meets and organizes itself. Tabulating Sunday's vote will take days. So Western observers should be wary of immediate analysis proclaiming a big victory for this or that party.

In addition, many parties now in the Duma - the liberal democratic Yabloko party and the Communists excepted - are hardly parties at all. They tend to be unwieldy groups of politicians who associate with each other, but not much more.

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The Communists may well gain seats this time around, but it's doubtful they'll get a working majority. They are deeply split between the authoritarian, pro-Soviet Old Guard and younger ''social democrats.''

The party appeals mostly to senior citizens and other groups who believe they have been shortchanged by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the move to a market economy. The Western press has given these complaints lots of attention, but they are far from the whole story. The Communists' appeal to people under 40 is probably quite limited. And there's little evidence Russian citizens want a return to the old ways.

Most likely, the next Duma will be more like the present one than different. There's been a lot of anti-Western and otherwise shrill rhetoric, but, so far, much of it appears to be just campaign bravado, not a sign of policy changes.

It's also worth remembering that the Duma is a relatively weak institution. Russia's French-style Constitution gives the president far greater powers over the legislature than the American chief executive has over Congress. The Duma has so far demonstrated little ability to challenge President Yeltsin's policies, and this vote isn't likely to change that.

The balloting will be seen as a referendum on change. It will serve as a kind of weeding-out mechanism for parties and party leaders who want to run for president in next June's presidential elections. That vote will tell us far more about the future direction of Russia and Russian-American relations than Sunday's.

This vote will be a kind of weeding-out mechanism for next June's presidential elections.

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