Russians Try to Make Sense of Election Blur

Many voters are undecided, and some worry new parliament could be filled with old faces

VERA KALMIKOVA, a fur hat pulled firmly over her ears as she hurries through the stores of Gostinny Dvor on the city's fashionable Nevsky Prospekt, has no time these days to think about the elections to the country's new parliament on Sunday.

``I'm a small businesswoman,'' says Ms. Kalmikova, who has an enterprise making winter parkas. ``I'm thinking where and what to buy and how to make a profit.''

Like almost all the dozens of voters talked to here in Russia's second-largest city, she has only a vague idea of the parties competing for her vote and no idea at all of the names of individual candidates in her election district.

``I'll decide a few days before the election,'' she says. ``I'll read newspapers and I'll watch TV. I'll talk to people who know. I'm absolutely not interested in politics. It's wrong, I know,'' she admits with an embarrassed laugh.

Kalmikova's disinterest and her indecision are typical of a large segment of the Russian electorate, even a few days before a vote that many consider to be the most important in Russian history. But she is also representative of a majority of Russian voters who, though confused about the details of who to vote for, are quite firm in their pro-reform sentiments.

``Everything that happened in October - Yeltsin should have won,'' she says, referring to the disbanding and storming of the old Communist-dominated parliament by President Boris Yeltsin. ``Finally he got freedom of action. I trust Yeltsin.'' Above the fray

The president himself has stood above partisan fray, as he did in a final pre-election television address last night. Mr. Yeltsin did call on voters to support ``democratic and reformist blocs and parties,'' a reference to at least four of the major contenders. But he refused to endorse any single party, including Russia's Choice, the reformist bloc that includes eight members of his government.

The evidence on the streets of St. Petersburg - and mirrored elsewhere if various polls are to be believed - clearly suggests that the majority of Russians also back democratic and market reforms and the parties that claim to support them.

But here, and back in Moscow, democrats are deeply worried that the short time to prepare for the election and the division within their own ranks will allow a significant number of Communists and other antireform elements to gain seats in the new parliament.

``In spite of the moaning of the population, up to 60 percent of the populace supports the reformist parties,'' says Leonid Kesselman, director of the Center for Social Research and Prognosis in Moscow. Opponents of reform such as the Communist Party will get 7 to 8 percent of the vote, he believes, while the Liberal Democratic Party of neo-fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky commands a considerable following of 8 percent or more.

The pro-reform majority are people like Tatyana Mekhontseva, a manager of a branch of the state savings bank, and her husband, Sergei, a welder at a bus depot. ``We know we will not vote for the Communists,'' Sergei says, when asked who will get their ballot.

``I like [Grigory] Yavlinsky,'' says Tatyana, referring to the reform economist who heads a bloc that is pro-reform but critical of the ``shock therapy'' followed by Vice Premier Yegor Gaidar, leader of Russia's Choice. ``He's closest to us. All the rest, we are tired of.''

Many of the ``simple workers'' at his bus depot are for Mr. Zhirinovsky, Sergei reports. ``I don't like him. Though he speaks correctly, there is something wrong in him.''

But Zhirinovsky, who gained 6 million votes in a 1991 run for president, has proved very effective, using television well while he tones down his extremist Russian nationalist rhetoric. For those looking for simple, clear answers to Russia's woes, his party is attractive, to both old and young.

``I love my country and now I don't have it anymore,'' says Zhirinovsky supporter and bus driver Volodya Luzin, lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union. ``We're not a banana republic. We don't want to be only exporting raw materials to buy Western imported goods. We are a great state.''

Such preferences are likely to be most clearly reflected in the vote for half of the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house of the new parliament, which will be selected on the basis of votes for one of 13 registered parties. Parties getting more than 5 percent of the vote will proportionally divide the 225 seats.

But it is far more difficult to predict the outcome in the 225 single-mandate districts, some of which have 20 candidates competing, or in the vote for Federation Council, the parliament's upper house where, like the United States Senate, there are two seats for each of Russia's 89 regions. Choosing by party

In conversations with voters, less than a handful could name even one of the candidates in their district or region. Most said they would make their choice by party rather than personality, but the ballot does not identify the party affiliation of the candidates.

Moreover the four major reform parties have been unable, in almost all cases, to unite their candidacies. On the antireform side the vote will be more concentrated, inadvertently aided by Yeltsin's decision to ban many extremist parties from participation.

``You know, I rarely have nightmares, but one is really haunting me,'' Mr. Gaidar told the Izvestia daily on Dec. 8, ``that I will come to the parliament and again see all the old faces there.''

That prospect makes it even more urgent that voters endorse a new proposed draft constitution that creates a strong presidential system, significantly weakening the role of the parliament. Many, not only pro-Communist but centrist parties, have called for its rejection, arguing it creates a virtual dictatorship.

Despite endorsement by most of the reform parties, there is concern the constitution might lose or that the turnout will be below the required level of 50 percent of the electorate.

Yeltsin's address was largely devoted to urging passage of the constitution, warning that failure to do so would return Russia to the conditions of ``civil war'' that prevailed in the beginning of October.

``If we do not adopt it, we shall get another round of struggle, new conflicts,'' Yeltsin warned. ``Aren't we tired of that?''

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