Russian Democracy Survives a Wobbly Week

Reform party is un-banned, some of the mystery around Yeltsin clears

SHADOWY conspiracies or not, the Russian electoral system demonstrated some self-correcting stability and balance this weekend.

Just a few days ago, the campaign for the next Russian parliamentary elections began officially amid suspicions of dark forces at work behind the scenes that are all too familiar in politics here.

President Yeltsin was in the hospital, unseen for more than a week except by family, one staff aide, and his powerful chief of personal security.

The most popular democratic reform party - the only one with a good chance at being elected to parliament - was disqualified from the election for breaking a campaign rule.

Fears eased on Friday, when Mr. Yeltsin appeared on television, and on Saturday, when the Supreme Court ruled that the reform party, Yabloko, could participate in elections.

Yet in a country where the anniversary of the Great October Revolution in 1917 - coming tomorrow - is still a major holiday, and the Communist Party is once again on the rise, nothing is taken for granted in the march toward democracy and reform.

The parliamentary (Duma) elections scheduled for Dec. 17 are the first to test Russian election law and the Central Election Commission charged with carrying it out.

The previous Duma was elected under presidential decree. Although the Duma has relatively few constitutional powers in Russia's president-centered system, its elections are viewed as a sort of primary for the presidential elections next June.

That election, in turn, could be its first democratic leadership succession in a millennium of Russian history.

For a few days this week, some Russian politicians were beginning to charge that the current leadership was being protected the old way, through bureaucratic connections and behind-the-scenes intrigue.

A week ago Sunday, the Central Election Commission voted not to register the Yabloko bloc of liberal, reform economist Grigory Yavlinsky. Russian political circles, across the party spectrum, were stunned. Yabloko is one of a handful of leading parties in the Russian scene, and Mr. Yavlinsky himself ranks as high as second in opinion polls asking who the next president should be.

Before the Supreme Court overruled the election commission, Yavlinsky himself had led the attribution of political motives to the commission, even charging that people around Yeltsin had prevailed on the election commission to derail a fair election by using a technicality to disqualify Yabloko.

But as the details of the commission's decision became clear, his theory quickly lost credibility even with those most sympathetic to his party.

Sergei Markov, a political scientist at Moscow State University and the Carnegie Foundation, holds what seems to be a widely held view in political circles, even inside Yabloko. He says that a relatively small Yabloko violation of election instructions became a major issue because of the messiness and ambiguity of the untested election rules, but also because Yavlinsky is "so arrogant."

Yavlinsky's conspiracy theory has some credible elements. After all, Yeltsin and his huge presidential administration, faced with ever-dimmer chances of reelection, must worry not simply about retiring to tennis and fund-raisers, as in the West, but about losing their property and even facing criminal charges if the next president is vengeful.

Also, the commission is dominated by Yeltsin appointees - with five Yeltsin appointees, five appointees of the Federation Council, which is itself appointed by Yeltsin, and five members elected from the state Duma.

Furthermore, until this Friday, the group of people allowed access to Yeltsin's hospital room was so small that any information on his health was unconfirmable. The possibility arose that his chief of personal security, who runs a large semisecret bureaucracy with its own troops and political-strategy institution, was in fact controlling the presidency.

Some of those concerns were dispelled Friday when Yeltsin met with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and was shown on television, not looking very vigorous but clearly aware and speaking to the public. Although the prime minister says he has not taken over any of the president's powers, he is picking up some of his workload and does not appear blocked out of his position as constitutional successor to an incapacitated president.

The rule that disqualified Yabloko was what Yavlinsky called a "trifling." Six of more than 200 names on Yabloko's party list were dropped by the time the bloc submitted its required 200,000 signatures last Sunday. Yabloko failed to produce required documents showing that these candidates had voluntarily withdrawn.

The rationale for the rule is to prevent parties from abusing candidates and voters by including names on their candidate list to attract signatures, then dropping them. Vladimir Zhirinovsky's radical nationalist party was accused of this practice in 1993 election. The six names on the Yabloko list were hardly obscure ones, either. All were people very likely to win election to the Duma.

But election commission members themselves never suspected bad faith on Yabloko's part. In fact, nearly every party had similarly missing confirmations.

The difference with Yabloko was that the bloc failed to supply them after early warnings from the commission that the commission was overstepping its mandate to simply count signatures and votes.

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