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Despotism with a dash of democracy: Russians, cowed by crime and turmoil, vote today. The result is likely to give Boris Yeltsin the powers of a modern tsar

RUSSIANS go to the polls today to elect a new parliament and approve a constitution that will give Boris Yeltsin sweeping powers - as long as at least half the voters turn out and 50 per cent of them support it.

Scandalous levels of crime have agitated them far more in the past few weeks than the sound and fury of the political campaigns.

An illustration: between January and November this year, thieves stole 8,000 heaters, 5,000 seats, 4,500 windows (with their frames) and 1,000 luggage shelves from Moscow commuter trains. This was not mindless vandalism: the heaters warm people's homes; the leather upholstery provides a face-lift for front doors, and the windows are used to build greenhouses.

Theft and corruption are rampant. Murders among Russia's post-Communist 'entrepreneurial' classes are routine.

People are frightened by the prospect of political violence. It is only two months since 147 people were killed in the showdown between forces loyal to President Yeltsin and Communist and ultra-nationalist rebels in the Russian parliament building.

Violence also emanates from the mouths of politicians who, Western governments would have us believe, are replacing decades of Communist dictatorship with multi-party politics and individual liberties. Mr Yeltsin told Russian television viewers last Thursday that civil war could break out if voters rejected his constitution.

His opponents have spent the election campaign warning that approval of the constitution would give Mr Yeltsin a free hand to return to familiar Russian methods of political repression. Many branded him a Bolshevik - a nasty term of abuse these days.

In modern Russia, as in the Tsarist and Soviet empires, an opponent is not someone to confront in debate, but a traitor, saboteur and mortal enemy. State television, controlled by Mr Yeltsin's allies, has hammered home this message. It devoted the biggest and most positive coverage to the pro- presidential electoral bloc, Russia's Choice, led by Mr Yeltsin's favourite minister, Yegor Gaidar.

More subtly, the second biggest amount of airtime went not to Mr Yeltsin's liberal critics but to Communists and extreme nationalists.

The message to voters was that today's choice is not between democrats of various hues, but between Mr Yeltsin and fanatics who would either start a war or reimpose totalitarian rule.

Those who remonstrated against such manipulation were not completely gagged - but neither were they allowed to operate in conditions free enough to consider these elections a triumph for Russian democracy.

In any event, the votes for the 450-seat State Duma, or lower house of parliament, and the 178-seat Council of the Federation (upper house) are not as important as the referendum. To take effect, the constitution needs at least 50 per cent support, and half the registered electorate must vote.

If the constitution passes, it will arm Mr Yeltsin with sufficient authority to lead Russia pretty much where he pleases. He will nominate the government, the Supreme Court and the military command. He will be free to dissolve the parliament if it shows signs of recalcitrance, and will be empowered to bring to heel Russia's autonomy-seeking republics and regions.

'Whatever the shortcomings of the new constitution, the main thing is that it is a reliable mechanism for protecting Russia and its citizens from the upheavals of October 1993,' Mr Yeltsin said.

Undoubtedly, many Russians were uncomfortable with the political anarchy that snowballed after the first semi-free Soviet elections of 1989. Many prefer to place their trust in a form of stern but enlightened one-man rule that promises order and prosperity. One of Mr Yeltsin's most popular measures in Moscow has been to expel thousands of non-Russians, emigrants from the southern borderlands, who had taken a gangsterish grip on the city's black economy.

A vote for Mr Yeltsin's constitution also means a vote for private property, including, for the first time in Russian history, the right to own, buy and sell land. The document enshrines other values such as freedom of speech and assembly.

Yet, as in the days of Tsarist reformers such as Catherine the Great and Alexander II, the nagging doubt remains that liberties which look fine on paper have been conferred at the ruler's pleasure and could be withdrawn just as easily.

There are also grounds for questioning whether the parliament or courts will really be able to act as checks on the enormous power concentrated in Mr Yeltsin's presidential office and the defence, security and interior ministries.

The German statesman Otto von Bismarck, discussing Russia in 1890, remarked that 'the only thing for such people is strong authority, which of course should be just, high- minded and if possible benevolent'. A century later, that is the direction in which Russia is evolving under Mr Yeltsin.

(Photograph omitted)