Reprinted with permission from Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1999.

With the United States fixated on crime and corruption in Russia, Russians obsess about two other dramas: upcoming parliamentary elections and the war in the Caucasus region. The first drama might well have a happy ending, rare for Russian dramas these days. The second is almost certainly a tragedy in the making. Worse, the war in the Caucasus may eventually subsume elections altogether, resulting in their cancellation, civil resistance and even civil war. Before such a scenario gains more momentum, U.S. officials should look beyond Russian corruption and do what they can to lower the probability of democratic collapse in Russia.

Overshadowed by the barrage of bad news in the Western media, a good-news story is unfolding in Russia. In a country burdened by hundreds of years of dictatorship, it is remarkable that Russia will hold its third consecutive lections for the Duma in December. No other democratically elected legislative body has lasted so long in Russia's history. The election planning underway and the likely results of the vote reveal several promising developments for political stability and political culture in Russia.

First, all major political actors now believe that elections are the only legitimate means for assuming power in Russia. In meetings last week in Moscow with political leaders ranging from Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov to liberal leader Boris Y. Nemtsov, everyone affirmed their belief in the electoral process. With more than words are these political actors demonstrating their commitment to democracy: They are paying campaign consultants rather than forming militias.

A second sign of stability and consolidation is that the choices offered to voters have narrowed considerably. After an explosion of party proliferation in 1995, when 43 parties appeared on the ballot, the 1999 parliamentary ballot will be shorter. Public-opinion polls also show that voters who supported small, unsuccessful parties in the last election do not want to waste their votes this time. One consequence is that a smaller number of parties will receive a greater share of the total vote, an outcome that will help to consolidate Russia's party system.

Third, extremist, antisystem parties have either become marginalized or changed their ways. Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia once looked like a Nazi facsimile. Today, it is primarily a commercial operation, selling its votes to the highest bidder. More radical fascist and communist organizations show little prospect of winning seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is likely to garner the most total votes again, but its transformation in the last several years has made it no longer a threat to the status quo. Today's party doesn't want to overthrow capitalism; it aspires to reform the economy. Radicals who still reject capitalism and democracy have gone elsewhere.

Fourth, the balance of power within parliament is likely to change for the better after the elections. In the current parliament, the Communists and their allies hold a solid majority, which has enabled them to dominate the legislative process. But this coalition is unlikely to retain its majority in the next Duma. Because the communist movement is more divided today, several organizations spun off from it will be competing for the same vote. The Communists will retain their core support of 20% of the electorate, but no more. The emergence of a new centrist coalition, Fatherland-All Russia, headed by former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov and Moscow mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov, will provide another challenge to the Communists. Yabloko, the liberal party headed by Grigory A. Yavlinsky, is poised to win 10% of the vote. This combination of a smaller Communist faction, a large Fatherland contingent and a smaller but significant Yabloko installment in the next Duma means that no single party will be able to dominate.

Finally, this optimism sets the stage for a positive result in the presidential election, currently scheduled for June 2000. If Fatherland continues to surge, most observers expect that one of its two leaders, Primakov or Luzhkov, will be the candidate to beat in the presidential election. Although both have questionable reformist credentials, neither advocates a radical break from capitalism or democracy.

Not everyone in Moscow is celebrating the good news of parliamentary and presidential elections, however. President Boris N. Yeltsin has stated repeatedly that he wants to become the first Kremlin leader in Russian history to hand over power democratically. His current obsession with his legacy makes his commitment credible.

Others around the president, however, have no legacy to defend. They are concerned, first and foremost, with staying out of jail after their boss retires. Many in Moscow fear that this "Yeltsin family" will be tempted to use whatever means necessary to subvert the electoral process and stay in power. A full-scale war in the Caucasus, in combination with increased terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere, might serve as their pretext. Indeed, many Russian political leaders and analysts believe that the Kremlin is deliberately escalating the Caucasus crisis to achieve such an outcome. Some even charge that the Yeltsin family financed the Moscow terrorist attacks.

Conspiracies aside, the probability that an attempt to derail the elections will be made is still low. The probability that such an extraconstitutional act would succeed is even lower. The Yeltsin regime is a spent force, with no political or military allies. Even if its members are conspiring to hold onto power beyond Yeltsin's elected term, they simply lack the means to execute their plan. Do Yeltsin and his circle of advisors share this assessment of the balance of power in Russia? A decade of barking commands from the Kremlin gives one a sense of omnipotence. Moreover, if Yeltsin and his family truly believe they will go to jail if ousted from the Kremlin, they may be tempted to pursue risky ventures.

Even though the probability of postponed elections are still low, the Clinton administration should do everything in its power to lower the it still more. First, the U.S. needs to continue to signal, publicly and privately, that it will not sanction any extraconstitutional act to thwart elections. Second, the administration must state clearly that the United States has no horse in Russia's upcoming elections, only a stake in democracy itself. To make this stance credible, the administration should assist Russian electoral officials in exposing the illegal use of U.S. money and campaign consultants in the presidential election. Third, the U.S. government should commit resources to help ensure that the elections are free and fair.

Russian political leaders of all stripes have stated that they welcome a serious international monitoring effort. They also support U.S. financial assistance for Russian organizations planning to monitor the elections. Yeltsin and his government should know that they would face serious sanctions if the elections do not come off and if they are perceived to have had a role in their postponement. Russia has a chance to begin the new millennium with new leadership elected through a free and fair process. The West should do everything it can to ensure that Russia has such a chance for a new beginning.