WITH less than a week until a crucial national referendum, there is a business-as-usual air on the streets of this city, the hub of the Russian south.
But a pocket of campaign atmosphere exists in a small, second-floor office - headquarters of the Russian Republican Party - a few blocks from the regional capital.
At the office, activists buzz with nervous energy and telephones ring with a sense of urgency. Regional Republican Party chief Raisa Grishichkina calls it the local command post for forces supporting President Boris Yeltsin, who faces a vote of confidence in his rule and economic policies in an April 25 referendum.
Well-provisioned with campaign literature piled high on a table and backed by the support of private businessmen and a phalanx of student volunteers, the pro-Yeltsin forces are ready to wage a good fight to keep reforms on track, Ms. Grishichkina says.
But with Mr. Yeltsin's position looking shaky, Grishichkina adds that a good fight doesn't necessarily mean a clean campaign. Indeed, a critical element of the pro-Yeltsin tactics here is to use nationality as a weapon against Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, Yeltsin's bitter political rival and an ethnic Chechen.
"Our last resort is to tell the people that if they don't vote [for Yeltsin,] they'll get a return to the Soviet system with a Chechen as its head," Grishichkina says. The idea is to compare Mr. Khasbulatov with another native son of the Caucasus - former dictator Joseph Stalin.
"It's dirty politics, but what can you do," she continues. "We don't say these things in our leaflets, or on television, but our activists use it on the streets."
Such no-holds-barred campaigning is fraught with explosive consequences in the Rostov area, which is on the fringe of several ethnic conflicts raging in the Caucasus - particularly the civil war in the Georgian region of Abkhazia.
The possibility of social conflict seems very much on the minds of regional politicians - both in the executive and legislative branches of the local government. In an attempt to keep a lid on local ethnic animosities - something that Grishichkina calls a "fact of life" - the politicians are remaining aloof from the pre-referendum hustings so as not to stir passions further.
As in many other Russian regions, executive authorities in Rostov are supporting Yeltsin in the Moscow power struggle, while legislative leaders are backing Mr. Khasbulatov and the national parliament.
But both sides here are quick to point out that relations between the two branches of government in Rostov are harmonious. "We don't have the conflict here that exists in the center [Moscow,]" says Vladimir Yemelyanov, deputy chief of the Rostov Administration.
Meanwhile, Deputy Parliament Chairman Mikhail Gaichuk, a harsh critic of the president's policies, condemns the pro-Yeltsin activists' use of "scare tactics," adding that they could easily backfire.
"They're doing a disservice to the president, because the people are tired of the propaganda campaign and may vote with their legs by not showing up," he says. "Political agitation won't achieve much. The people already have made up their minds."
Mr. Gaichuk's comments reflect the pre-referendum tactics of Yeltsin opponents, who are counting heavily on public apathy to produce a mandate to radically shift the pace and direction of economic reforms.
On the national level, pro-Yeltsin supporters are clearly worried about a low turnout next Sunday, and are mobilizing an array of Russian entertainment stars to generate interest in the referendum. Several rock concerts - designed to get out the vote for Yeltsin - will be staged in Moscow this week and broadcast on nationwide television.
At the same time, Yeltsin opponents in Moscow have unleashed a mud-slinging attack of their own. In a fiery speech in Parliament on Friday, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, a Yeltsin foe, accused many members of the president's pro-reform team, including former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, of widespread corruption. The Parliament voted to conduct an inquiry into Mr. Rutskoi's charges.
In Rostov, however, star-studded galas and corruption charges will not have as much of an effect on the way people vote as does talk about nationality, Grishichkina and others say.
Historically, Rostov-on-the-Don was used as a staging area for Russian armies during the 19th-century conquest of Caucasian nations. Today, the city of more than 1 million - surrounded by rich, black-earth agricultural lands - still bears traces of those wars.
Though Russians are in the majority, Rostov contains a highly combustible ethnic mix, including Cossacks - traditionally staunch Russian nationalists - as well as Caucasian nationalities such as Chechens, Ingushi, and Adygeis. Especially during the current hard economic times, inter-ethnic relations are strained, officials admit.
By playing the nationality card during the referendum campaign, the pro-Yeltsin forces could be laying the groundwork for future ethnic confrontation.
"We're concerned about events of the Caucasian wars spilling across our border. Any political action here just creates more instability," says Gaichuk.