An alarming amount of blood has already been shed. Seven weeks ago the doctor of the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was shot dead in Moscow. Six days ago the Moscow mayor's running mate was critically injured by a blast outside his apartment. And on Tuesday, four people died in a bomb in a metro train.
No one yet knows for sure if these events were an attempt to disrupt the election, the first round of which is on Sunday. But they seem too coincidental to be unrelated, even in this violent capital, where businessmen are shot dead every other day and the mafia preys on almost every level of the business community. Add to this reports yesterday that one candidate, Grigory Yavlinksy, a liberal reformer, was allegedly threatened with violence against his children if he campaigned seriously, and one cannot mistake a malign pulse beneath a seemingly orderly surface.
Whoever planted the metro bomb did so knowing that he could kill dozens of people. "This savage barbaric act on the eve of the elections is aimed at destabilising the situation in the capital and creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear in Russia," President Boris Yeltsin said yesterday.
"The best response to the machinations of the extremists will be a vote . . . for civil peace, for stability."
But that atmosphere of fear and uncertainty began long before the bomb went off. Mr Yeltsin's aides - most recently, Sergei Filatov - have been predicting civil war, and accusing their chief rivals, the communist-nationalist coalition, of setting up armed brigades across the country which would go in action if they lost the election. Such remarks one would normally put down to campaign rhetoric; and that is probably what they were. But Russia's recent history, from the bombardment of parliament in 1993 to the failed coup of 1991, means they cannot be dismissed outright.
The tone of political debate betrays the tension. Shops across the city bear notices telling people to "buy now, before the shortages start again". The Yeltsin camp has distributed millions of copies of a newspaper called Ne dai Bog! (God Forbid!) showing his rival, Gennady Zyuganov, as a mad surgeon wielding a hammer and sickle in place of a scapel. Far from being apathetic about politics, Russians these days often come close to fisticuffs when the issue is raised.
Even before the vote - and Sunday's poll seems certain to be followed by a run-off next month - there is skulduggery in the air. Mr Yeltsin has used the national media to his ends, shutting out Mr Zyuganov. Exploiting the benefits of incumbency, he has raided the Central Bank of $1bn to pay for his election promises.
Yesterday Mr Yeltsin appeared at a huge rally and pop concert in Red Square before thousands of young people, a gala occasion which contrasted with the low-budget events organised for Mr Zyuganov. Despite hordes of international observers, and laws allowing parties to carry out parallel counts, almost all Russians expects some degree of fraud.
The ugliness of the battle is all the more alarming because it matters, both for Russia and for the rest of the world. Watching from the sidelines, it is easy to assume this contest is a straight fight between reform and democracy (Yeltsin) and communism (Zyuganov). It is not. If Russia turns to communism, this will not be a step back to the one-party days of central planning, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Mr Zyuganov's brand of pragmatic communism, which believes in the mixed economy, is rooted in Russian nationalism. It is bent on restoring the country to "great power status", shored up by a xenophobic element in the Orthodox Church.
But what if Mr Yeltsin wins? A victorious Mr Yeltsin is capable of going into hibernation again, surrounded by a cast of dubious characters. At 65, his health is dodgy and is likely to worsen. For all the evidence that the economy is beginning to show promising shoots, Russia could easily lurch off course, and slip into a benighted state, overrun by the mafia, corruption, and social decay.
Both paths should worry the world. Five years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russians are getting a swig of democracy - with a bitter aftertaste that could convince many that they have already had enough. If the elections pass without any more violence, success will not lie in the results, but that the elections happened at all.
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