Russian democrats' split aids Communists: Andrew Higgins, in Voronezh, finds the President's allies badly divided as elections approach

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NIKOLAI MOROZOV, one-time lumberjack, radio engineer, polytechnic lecturer and zealous foe of a system that allowed not a single real election from 1917 to 1990, will say one thing for the Communists: they learn quickly.

Indeed, rather than a handicap, the lock-step habits of the party of Lenin are proving an asset as they prepare for Russia's parliamentary poll on 12 December. Mr Morozov, along with many other grassroots supporters of President Boris Yeltsin, frets about defeat at what was supposed to be his game.

'The Communists are professionals. They do things properly,' he says with grudging respect, cutting a less than charismatic figure himself in a purple shirt, clunky spectacles and frayed wedge tie. 'They are drawn together by despair. This makes it easier to forget personal ambition. We democrats are the victors. Each one of us thinks like a victor.'

And far too many want to sit in parliament.

Among them is Mr Morozov himself, one of 11 would-be MPs who rushed to submit papers for the Pravoberezhny District of Voronezh, 219km (350 miles) south of Moscow, before Sunday's midnight deadline. The Communists are fielding two candidates, as are two minuscule groups too fuzzy to identify. The centrist Civic Union put forward one candidate, while pro-Yeltsin blocs - separated by shades far too subtle for most voters - a suicidal total of six.

'It would be far better if there was only one of us,' concedes Mr Morozov, who lost an earlier parliamentary campaign for the now disbanded Congress of People's Deputies. There were too many democrats in 1990, too, he says. And again earlier this year in the neighbouring Lipetsk Region, where a slew of reformists split the vote and allowed a conservative to become governor.

Mr Morozov, 44, proposes a solution: 'I'm ready to toss a coin to decide which one of us it should be.' The idea is a non-starter. Viktor Davydkin, Mr Yeltsin's representative in Voronezh, explains why. 'Everyone has a twinkle in their eye. It means: I'm a senator,' he mocks. But he also has the same twinkle.

Political parties in Russia are little more than clubs, built around personalities rather than policies. Mr Morozov belongs to the Democratic Party of Russia, almost identical in all but the faces of its leaders in Moscow to three other blocs. The biggest of these is Russia's Choice of Yegor Gaidar.

Relations on the ground are friendly. Possibly too friendly. Mr Morozov works as deputy to Mr Davydkin, who is a candidate for rival Russia's Choice. They share the same fax machine and photocopier. A single secretary helps them both. They share the same jokes about old Communists and bungling bureaucrats.

Their parties also share - and thus divide - the same electorate. 'This is our big problem. But this is also the essence of democracy,' says Boris Kuznetsov, a professional philosopher and the Voronezh agent for Russia's Choice. 'The essence of democracy is disunity. Totalitarianism is the opposite. Unity is its strength.'

For Voronezh Region as a whole, where only 49.7 per cent voted in favour of Mr Yeltsin in an April referendum, some 30 candidates plan to compete for four seats: six Communists and nationalists, six centrists and 18 pro-Yeltsin democrats.

Mr Yeltsin's opponents are far from a monolith. They, too, have constantly mutating factions, ranging from monarchists to Leninists, xenophobic nationalists to cosmopolitan internationalists, strict Stalinists to soft socialists.

The democrats also enjoy big advantages. The national media, particularly television, is biased in their favour. To ensure the same in Voronezh, the regional head of the Committee for the Protection of Press Freedom, a state monitoring agency, has just been sacked. That he was ever hired is something of an embarrassment: Mr Davydkin endorsed Moscow's nomination of a man called Morozov. He thought it was his colleague, Nikolai, but it turned out to be a very different Morozov.

The Communists, still the most cohesive force in Voronezh, would never make such a gaffe. Nationwide, the Russian Communist Party, briefly banned after the violence of October, claims 600,000 members. The Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a rabble-rousing nationalist, could do well among Voronezh farmers trembling at the prospect of private farming.

The Communists and far right condemn the December poll as rigged and say the new legislature will be tainted from the start - exactly what Mr Yeltsin used to say about the Congress he disbanded by fiat on 21 September and shelled with tanks a fortnight later.

'The institutions being elected are fully illegitimate,' says Ivan Shabanov, former party secretary and then chairman - until it shut down last month - of the Voronezh soviet. 'This election is pure farce.' Oddly, he has this to say about his own intentions. 'Of course, I'm going to be a candidate.'

Mr Shabanov will run for the upper house, the Federative Council, as an independent Communist. These days, though, Communism is negotiable, too. It is an approach, not an ideology. Mr Shabanov just took down the oil portrait of Lenin that only a few months ago he vowed never to remove. 'I don't believe in slogans,' he says. Nor, it seems, in much else either. He is not alone.

West's dilemma, page 19