MOSCOW — Differences are so stark in Russia's presidential election this summer between Communists and President Boris Yeltsin's camp that the outcome may cause fighting in the streets.
This is the argument some Yeltsin supporters make in favor of postponing the June election - the timing of which is mandated by federal law - to maintain social stability.
The most prominent proponent was Mr. Yeltsin's security chief and close aide, Gen. Alexander Korzhakov. No matter who wins the election, he said on Sunday, the losing side will not accept it peacefully.
After Mr. Yeltsin denounced the idea of postponing the elections, and on Tuesday confirmed to President Clinton by telephone his commitment to holding them on time, another military man who commands Moscow's military district warned of a Communist victory leading to instability and urged postponement.
Most of these voices have self-serving reasons for warning of disaster if a Communist becomes president. But others feel a vague uneasiness that many Russians, especially the new elite, will resist giving up power and control of the economy to the Communists - even to the point of violence.
In several countries in the former East bloc, such as Poland and Hungary, voters have returned refurbished communists to power democratically. Yet few of these countries have seen major policy shifts, much less social unrest.
But in Russia, the communist stripes of the party and its candidate run a bolder shade of red, and even many ordinary Russians fear that those now in control of the economy will fight before they hand it over.
One voter, a retired woman from Kurgan, a city east of the Ural Mountains, sees Mr. Yeltsin as corrupt and incompetent, but strongly hopes the Communists don't return to power. "It would be World War III," she said on a visit to Moscow.
Anatoly Chubais, who is now running Yeltsin's reelection bid after being fired earlier this year as privatization chief, warned of a "bloodbath" if Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov wins.
But diplomats and Russian political observers are skeptical that the warnings of civil war, or even massive public protest, amount to much more than self-serving pretexts to put off an election that some in the Yeltsin camp feel they will lose.
At most, some public protests could rise up against a Communist victory in Moscow itself, but little more, says a Western diplomat who studies Russian politics closely.
Another political observer, Andrei Zagorsky of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, sees no likelihood of any kind of social unrest.
I win, you go to jail
Two groups have the most at stake in case of a Communist victory: The Yeltsin administration and outsiders who are prospering financially chiefly because of connections with the Yeltsin team. This group, including General Korzhakov and Yeltsin himself, faces the risk of imprisonment for its role in seizing the parliament building by force in 1993 and for suspicious transfers of public enterprises and property to private hands. The other group is the business community, which has won property and power in post-Communist Russia.
Many in the business community are deciding that they may be able to live with a President Zyuganov. Last week, 13 prominent bankers and industrialists signed a public letter urging a compromise of some sort between Yeltsin and Zyuganov to avoid instability and possible civil war. The letter was vague, but seemed to be reaching for a promise of inclusiveness by both candidates if they win.
The Western diplomat reads this letter as an attempt to strengthen the conservative, moderate alliances of Zyuganov and distance him from his more radically communist aides and supporters.
While most businesspeople would prefer that Zyuganov not win, says Alexander Orlov, director of the Russian Business Roundtable, a group of leading business leaders, "I don't believe many Russian businessmen are given to panic." Most, he says, are quietly ready to cope with any election outcome.
Sergei Skatershchikov, a young entrepreneur who runs a financial newsletter and research company, says "none of the people I talk to are too worried about Communists winning" - mostly because they believe that Yeltsin will find a way to win, legally or otherwise. But he does see them diversifying their investments outside Russia against the risk of a communist return to power. Russian money has been leaving the country at a higher speed in recent months, based on Zyuganov's front-running prospects in the election.
Some win either way
A substantial group of business managers are the directors of large enterprises, most of which are in some stage of privatization with part state ownership and part private. Most of these managers once thrived in the Communist system and have no great foreboding that a Communist president would bring radical change, says Gennady Kotchetkov, who runs a center that advises such directors on how to function in a free-market environment.
"Many of them are trying to change to a new way of thinking," he says, "but they can manage either way."
The notion that the election might be postponed first surfaced in business circles a year or more ago, but the political calendar has run too far now to allow for postponement, says Mr. Orlov of the Business Roundtable.
For postponement to be accepted by a skeptical public, it would require an extraordinary, "totally legitimate" emergency to arise, says Dr. Zagorsky. He sees delay as improbable, since Yeltsin would then be a not-quite legitimate president who could no longer expect the support of the West, and who would be opposed by a completely legitimate parliament.
In Korzhakov's comments favoring postponement, he said that if Yeltsin won, then opponents would accuse him of cheating and deny the legitimacy of the vote count. If Zyuganov won, then his own allies would not allow him to pursue a moderate, centrist course, but push him to a more radical position.
Regardless of who wins, popular discontent may come to a head around September or October, according to the Western diplomat, because funds that Yeltsin is now using to pay back wages and pensions are starving investment in industrial production.