AN angry row is raising concern that Russian parliamentary elections may not come off Dec. 17, and is raising doubts about the country's moves toward democracy.
The Central Electoral Commission Sunday disqualified the leading liberal reformist party, Yabloko, from contesting the poll for technical violations of election law.
As President Boris Yeltsin lay in a hospital after being diagnosed with a heart ailment last Thursday, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky claimed he was being victimized by plotters around the president who want to cancel the elections and abandon the path of reform.
''The commission's decision proves that there is a serious political group at the highest levels of the state that has its own rules and wants to destabilize the political situation and undermine the electoral process,'' he told reporters yesterday. Mr. Yavlinsky's party has a popularity rating of about 14 percent, making it the country's most popular party along with the Communists.
Even though other political leaders suggested that Yavlinsky was careless and should have paid more attention to the details of electoral law, his charges underlined how rocky the electoral season is expected to be.
The decision and the furor it sparked among Russia's politicians show how easy it is to throw the electoral system off balance, and how far the country still has to go to reach a stable political plateau.
The commission's ruling was widely seen as a dangerous move that threatened Russia's fragile democratic process.
''This decision was, at the least, ill-considered and harmful, not only for the election campaign, but also for democracy in this country,'' Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said, according to the Interfax news agency. ''I hope common sense and responsibility will prevail, and that a legal way will be found to correct the mistake.''
A senior electoral-commission official appeared to open the way to such a solution Monday, saying the commission would reconsider Yabloko's situation if instructed to do so by the Supreme Court. Yavlinsky said he was hopeful that the court would ''take the right decision'' on the appeal he plans to lodge.
But he also painted a dark picture of reactionary conspirators taking advantage of the president's illness. ''The nomenklatura gathered around the president's sickbed are using his current state ... they are posing a direct challenge to him,'' he claimed.
Some independent observers took a less apocalyptic view, suggesting that the electoral commission was simply asserting its authority and used irregularities in Yabloko's election registration papers to make its presence felt.
Commission president Nikolai Ryabov ''thinks that the commission's main function is to strengthen its own position,'' argued Mikhail Leontiev, a commentator with the liberal ''Sevodnya'' daily newspaper. ''He is going on the rampage to show his authority.''
''In the end [Yabloko] will be allowed to run,'' Mr. Leontiev predicted. ''In the same way they could arbitrarily find a way to keep them out of the elections, they can find an arbitrary way to let them back in.''
IF the commission's decision is not overturned, however, Yabloko's absence would leave Yegor Gaidar's ''Russia's Democratic Choice'' party as the only significant reformist group contesting the election.
Mr. Gaidar, however, hinted on Sunday that he would boycott the elections if Yabloko was disqualified. That would leave the field almost entirely clear for the Communists and nationalists, and cast a heavy shadow over the election's credibility.
''This is meant to be representative democracy,'' said commentator Leontiev. ''If it doesn't represent anybody, what use is it?''
Mr. Ryabov acknowledged, as he announced the ban, that ''we understand our responsibility, we understand that a big electorate is lost,'' but said he was obliged to uphold the law.
Paradoxically, the moves against Yabloko might turn out to Yavlinsky's advantage, if he can appeal to the electorate's sympathy. ''Being persecuted and turned into a martyr figure makes you very popular in Russia,'' said Christopher Granville, a political analyst with the United City Bank here.
Yavlinsky is one of the front-runners in the presidential stakes. Elections are due next June, but might be held earlier if Yeltsin is unable to rule for health reasons.
''These are the first steps in preparation for the presidential election,'' he warned. ''This is only the beginning of the real fight for the future.''