'Peas for votes' storm as St Petersburg goes to polls

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THIS IS a very bad time to be a liberal democrat in Russia.

THIS IS a very bad time to be a liberal democrat in Russia.

Take several incidents over the past few days alone: a school in the Urals has unveiled a bust of Stalin; Communists have been clamouring for the return of the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the ruthless founder of the KGB, outside the Lubyanka in downtown Moscow; the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luhkov, a leading presidential candidate, held a weekend congress of his new political party (Fatherland) and announced the era of radical liberal reforms was dead. "The experiment is over," he declared.

The liberal democrats themselves - a mixed bag ranging from opportunist free-marketeers to genuine liberals - are in shock caused by the murder a month ago of one of their leading lights in parliament, Galina Starovoitova, adviser to Boris Yeltsin in the perestroika era. Their influence has shrivelled. And anti-Semites have been spouting freely in parliament.

And yet there is one small corner of hope, in what used to be the tsars' city of St Petersburg.Yesterday saw the second round of municipal elections in the city - which is, by tradition, a seedbed for Russia's liberal intelligentsia.

Democrats were hoping to consolidate gains made after the assassination of Ms Starovoitova.Outrage at her murder was one reason for an unprecedentedly high turn-out of 40 per cent in the election's first round on 6 December, when the anti-communist liberals - notably the Yabloko Party - did well. Underlying this was impatience with runaway corruption and crime in St Petersburg, which has seen repeated assassinations and the evolution of mafia-style criminal gangs who control a large section of business, including cemeteries.

But, while the election results, expected early today, may give democrats a rare cause for celebration, the campaign itself has not. The elections have been marred by some of the dirtiest tactics witnessed in Russian politics. There were allegations that pensioners were given tins of peas for votes; phantom candidates with the same names as genuine participants appeared on ballot papers. Smears and counter-smears abounded.

Whatever the outcome, the so-called democratic camp has a long way to go if it is to do well in national parliamentary elections next year and - crucially - make a credible challenge for the presidency in 2000.

After the Starovoitova murder, most of their leading lights - former prime ministers Yegor Gaidar and Sergei Kiriyenko, and leading ex-ministers Anatoly Chubais, Boris Federov and Boris Nemtsov - announced a coalition.

However, a key figure has refused to play ball, Yabloko's leader Grigory Yavlinsky. While he stands apart, the liberal democratic vote, or what's left of it, could be dangerously split.