MOSCOW — One month from now, Russia will begin the most telling test of any new democracy - the first chance to either reelect or replace a sitting head of state in a fair vote. It could mean the first democratic leadership succession in a millennium of Russian history.
Or one of the major candidates, President Boris Yeltsin and Communist Gennady Zyuganov, could win by cheating.
"Both of them have a lot of opportunities to influence the electoral commissions," says Alexander Sobyanin, a leading authority on elections in Russia. He has closely studied fraud in the parliamentary elections of 1993.
Could Mr. Yeltsin steal reelection June 16? "That cannot be excluded," says Viktor Sheinis, a deputy in the Duma, or lower house of parliament, who belongs to the democratic Yabloko party and who largely drafted the current election law.
Significant fraud would leave the West with an awkward problem: how to support legitimate democracy in Russia.
And if winning honestly isn't possible, then Yeltsin will win by other means, says Nikolai Petrov, a senior consultant
in Moscow for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "If someone proves the falsification of the election in a couple of weeks or months, who will really care?" Mr. Petrov asks.
Mr. Zyuganov has an even better chance to benefit from fraud than Yeltsin has, according to Mr. Sobyanin.
Both Russian experts and international election observers here agree that it would be very difficult for the Yeltsin or Zyuganov teams to centrally orchestrate much election fraud. Instead, the greatest latitude for manipulating results lies in the hands of local administrators. It is mainly they who appoint the commissions that tally up the votes from Russia's 90,000 polling stations.
The scale of possible fraud is more of a debate. International observers, preparing to dispatch monitors to as many polling places as possible, hope that good coordination with observers allied with candidates will make significant falsification difficult.
"To do it on the scale that would make an impact here would be very difficult," says Michael Meadowcroft, Russia coordinator for the hundreds of observers coming on behalf of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
But Russian experts on election procedures see little or nothing yet to improve on past elections, where fraud was pervasive but ignored, even when affirmed in court.
Sobyanin's studies of the 1993 elections - in which many regional governors, the previous parliament, and the Russian Constitution were voted in - found that about 20 percent of the ballots nationally were falsified. Because the parliamentary elections last December followed the same patterns, territory by territory, he assumes that there was a similar level of falsification in similar places.
Alexei Podberyozkin, a senior Zyuganov adviser and chairman of a nationalist group called Spiritual Heritage, says that while fraud as high as 25 percent is theoretically possible, the probable level is between 5 and 7 percent. All of it, he says, will be on behalf of Yeltsin, because only Yeltsin can exert the necessary pressure on the governors and election officials.
Sergei Markov, also of the Carnegie Endowment, estimates that no more than 3 percent of ballots will be falsified.
Election fraud would have been significantly more difficult under a law supported by both Communists and democratic politicians that was defeated in the upper house of parliament Wednesday. The Yeltsin administration and the regional administrators that make up the upper chamber opposed the bill.
In general, Yeltsin's team most fears fraud in the countryside, where Communist support is strongest. The Communists most fear fraud in cities, where Yeltsin support runs stronger. Rural polling stations and tallying centers will be more difficult to monitor than those in cities, where observers will be more plentiful.
On voting day June 16, observers from media organizations, candidates' groups, and international groups have open access to the polls. At the end of the day, each station keeps a tally of the votes, sends a copy to one of 3,000 territorial election commissions to be aggregated, and make a third copy that is available to any observer who demands to see it. The territorial election commissions also must produce a third tally for public inspection.
The Communists, the only real mass organization in the country, plan to have at least five observers at each polling station and at the territorial commissions, says Mr. Podberyozkin. Even so, he expects some fraud to slip by.
International observers will collect sample tallies and project the vote count the day after the election. Western media groups expect to do exit polling as well. These numbers should help make any fraud more apparent, and perhaps discourage it in advance.
Observers agree that if numbers can be changed, the territorial level is the easiest point at which to do it. The territorial commissions answer to the Central Election Commission in Moscow, but are appointed by governors and legislatures in their regions. Since they depend on Moscow, Petrov expects that many will try to please both candidates as long as either one could win.
"Our electoral system in general is the same as it used to be, as it was designed by Stalin," says Petrov. As with the Soviet-era Constitution of Stalin's time, the laws are generally good but lack enforcement, he explains.