In Russia, Democracy Isn't a Pretty Picture

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If democracy gives nations the governments they deserve, Russians may be forgiven for wondering what they did to deserve the field for Sunday's Duma elections. For the third time since communism's fall, Russian voters go to the polls to choose between parties variously comprising unreconstructed Stalinists, reconstructed Stalinists, Kremlin apparatchiks, opportunist demagogues and a veritable army of dubious former prime ministers.

Front-runners, as ever, are the Communists, who look set to remain the largest bloc in the legislature with up to 25 percent of the vote. But given that Sunday's vote is a warm-up for next July's presidential election, the more interesting battle is for second place. When former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov joined forces earlier this year to create the Fatherland-All Russia bloc, they looked like an unbeatable combination to win both the Duma and the presidency. But public enthusiasm for the war in Chechnya has propelled neophyte prime minister Vladimir Putin into a commanding lead in the presidential stakes, and made his parliamentary allies in the Unity alliance the strongest contenders for second place, with a predicted 12 to 15 percent. Meanwhile, the media owned by Yeltsin backer Boris Berezovsky has ground away at Fatherland-All Russia's lead with a relentless barrage of attacks — even accusing Luzhkov of involvement in the murder of an American businessman in 1996 — and the party is now expected to run third with somewhere between 9 and 12 percent. Nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky is something of a spent force these days, and will have to compete for space in the legislature with a plethora of smaller parties.

Overall, the election is likely to be good news for both Yeltsin and his appointed successor, Putin. A strong showing by Unity, as well as the pro-Kremlin Union of Right-Wing Forces headed by former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, will create a solid pro-Kremlin bloc in the traditionally anti-Kremlin legislature. That's an effect primarily of the Chechnya war, although it also illustrates that Russian politics is something of a funhouse mirror to multiparty democracy. Russia's communist-era nomenklaturacontinue to compete for power among themselves in an ever-shifting series of hidden transactions, in which party politics is something of an afterthought. "The strongest contender besides the Communists is a party that didn't exist until last month," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "More than anything, this election shows how easy it is in Russia, under the aegis of democratic institutions, to create a top-down pro-Kremlin party from scratch and then, with huge infusions of cash and a stunningly popular patriotic war in Chechnya, build it into a front-runner."

When Yeltsin named Putin as his successor in August, the former KGB officer had a popularity rating of less than 1 percent. Now, Russian pollsters are saying, he's a shoo-in for next year's presidential election. But the Chechnya war that propelled him to the top could also drag him down. Russian public support for the campaign is premised on the fact of Russia's suffering minimal casualties. A videotape to back Western news reports of more than 100 Russian soldiers lying in the wreckage of a tank column ambushed in Grozny could seriously affect his poll ratings.