AT first glance, the lineup of grim faces staring down from most Moscow buildings looked like standard-issue Politburo posters. But on closer inspection, these were not all Politburo-esque faces. Some sported beards. Some were not much older than 30. And beneath some, the resumes were distinctly unorthodox: ``World-famous artist,'' ``Served in labor camp for political views,'' ``Organizer of new social movements.''
In many of the cities of Russia, the Ukraine, and Byelorussia, such were the campaign posters for last Sunday's elections for local councils and republican parliaments. Although voters faced the usual lack of choice in many regions, the multiparty system had a genuine test in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Lvov, and other politically active cities.
Sunday's vote, in which reformist candidates scored well, represented the latest stage in the evolution of Soviet-style democracy. Over the past three years, a variety of informal clubs and civic organizations have given way to what a Communist Party Central Committee aide called the ``fetuses'' of political parties.
These groups, which sprang up under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign to awaken a slumbering populace, provided an outlet for political activism that the Communist Party had long ago ceased to offer.
``Democratic development in the Soviet Union is more than just the creation of parties,'' says Andrei Fadin, political editor of the independent weekly Commersant. ``There are the popular movements, people's fronts, associations.'' Inside the once-monolithic Communist Party, the spectrum of views ranges from historian Yuri Afanasyev's line of radical reform to Leningrad teacher Nina Andreyeva's push for a return to the old order.
On the outside, tiny groups and larger movements exist to suit almost any taste, from anarcho-syndicalists to social democrats to monarchists.
``Parallel processes are taking place,'' says Igor Chubais, a leader of the Communist Party faction called Democratic Platform.
With the Communist Party set to recognize opposition parties, some noncommunist groupings are poised to claim legal status. The Ukrainian Social Democratic Party will hold its founding congress on March 25. Early in May, the Social Democratic Party of Russia will do the same. These follow the establishment of Social Democratic parties in Georgia, Byelorussia, Estonia (which has three), Latvia, and Lithuania. A party is also forming in Moldavia. They are all under the umbrella Social Democratic Association.
But in the face of a major transformation of the Soviet state - Lithuania is set to declare independence as early as Sunday - any talk of a ``dawn of democracy'' in this once-totalitarian nation boils down to a discussion of each individual republic.
Within the vast Russian federation, last Sunday's elections spurred the creation of candidate ``blocs'': the Democratic Russia bloc, which included social democrats, reform-minded communists, and other pro-reform candidates and the Social-Patriotic Movement of Russia, which linked the United Workers' Front and various other Russian nationalist organizations, including elements of the ultra-rightist Pamyat.
Judging by Sunday's results, Democratic Russia clearly ran a more effective campaign than its right-wing counterpart. On the eve of the vote, Moscow mailboxes were stuffed with computer printouts of the local Democratic Russia slate. Buildings were plastered with lists of endorsements.
The Patriotic bloc blames its second-place showing on a lack of access to the news media, which are ``dominated by pro-capitalists,'' says Igor Malyarov, an unsuccessful United Workers' Front candidate for the Russian parliament. ``Our position was constantly misrepresented. We are the radicals, but not from the right wing. We aim to establish true communism, so that makes us left wing.''
To Democratic Russia, the other bloc is an illusion. ``This election was a choice between pro-reform and antireform,'' says Oleg Rumyantsev, a co-chairman of the Social Democratic Association. ``The apparat and this so-called patriotic alliance were really one and the same.''
A battle among moderate reformers, radicals, and entrenched interests is also being waged inside the party. The Afanasyev wing, united under the Democratic Platform, has all but decided to quit the party. The split will likely take place after this summer's crucial Communist Party Congress, affording the radicals' views wide coverage in the party-controlled media.
Just how many rank-and-file communists will follow the breakaway leaders' exodus remains to be seen. The Central Committee staff member predicts a negligible impact. ``Without them,'' he says, ``the Communist Party will be able to reach consensus on important matters more easily.''
After the breakaway, a new type of battle is likely to emerge - over the identity of the nascent Social Democratic Party. Will it be dominated by former communists, or by avowed anticommunists? Or will there be more than one Social Democratic Party?
``The main idea of the Communist Party is to make a multiparty system of communist parties,'' Oleg Rumyantsev says. ``I think we must intervene into this plan of several post-communist parties. ... [Boris] Yeltsin may be a member of a new renovated Communist Party. But Afanasyev, no.'' He ticks off names of communists whom he feels have opportunistically wrapped themselves in the social democratic mantle to win votes. But not all soon-to-be former communists would be automatically excluded from his party.
Rumyantsev's concern over ideological purity cuts to the heart of a key question hanging over Russia's new party politics: How democratic are these so-called democratic movements?
A recent episode brought this matter to the fore. Radical economist Larisa Piyasheva was kicked out of the Democratic Russia bloc just before Sunday's vote. Her crime: She had written articles sharply critical of the economic ideas of fellow bloc members Ilya Zaslavsky and Gavril Popov.
``In America, you don't have a bloc system in elections, so you can't compare,'' says Vladimir Bokser, a Democratic Russia organizer. ``Every member signed an agreement to support the other bloc candidates, because in the fight against the entrenched powers, unity is crucial. Piyasheva violated that agreement.''
Others were ashamed by the incident. ``Unfortunately, it reflects the system in which we all grew up,'' says Mikhail Zarapin, another bloc member. ``In our society, we have never been tolerant of opposing views.''