Four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians are preparing to go to the polls to choose a new lower house of parliament from a bewildering array of 43 parties and blocs, who range from hard-left nationalists and new-look Communists to free-marketeers.
Although the elections, on 17 December, are for a legislature with limited powers, they are crucial. If they pass without any significant fraud, they will demonstrate to the world that democracy can function in Russia. Never in its history has there been a second free and fair election to a federal legislature.
The elections are also the equivalent of a primary for next year's presidential contest, which - if the Kremlin's ruling elite resist the temptation to cancel them - will take place in June. The leaders of the strongest parties, including several whose regressive policies alarm reformers and the West, are widely assumed to be preparing for a gladiatorial show-down over Russia's future.
Among the likely combatants are Alexander Lebed, a popular retired army general with strong nationalist leanings; Grigory Yavlinksy, the Harvard- educated pro-Western economist; the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, and the ultra-nationalist and flamboyant mischief-maker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has already declared his candidacy. Each knows that if his party fares well in the Duma elections, it will supply momentum to his presidential bandwagon, and that cash and political support will follow. Each also knows that a poor performance will deal a serious, if not fatal, blow to his chances.
A key player in this drama is Boris Yeltsin himself, who continues to languish in a woodland sanatorium outside Moscow, recovering from his latest heart attack. His decision over running for a second term, despite health problems and low popularity ratings, may depend on the election results, including those of the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home Is Russia party. A bad showing by the so-called "party of power" could well lead to Mr Chernomyrdin's dismissal, and may even mean that Yeltsin - prodded by his wife, Naina - will decide to retire.
However, the President's tenacity should not be underestimated, and nor should the desire of the Kremlin elite to hang on to power. Those who have amassed fortunes from illegally exploiting privatisation are worried that the next administration may begin criminal proceedings against them. Some of those involved in events surrounding the storming of the Supreme Soviet parliament by Yeltsin in 1993 are also nervous.
Under Russian law, half the 450 Duma seats will be elected from single- mandate constituencies. The other half will be awarded proportionately based on votes for party lists, although a party must win more than 5 per cent to qualify for seats - a condition that has caused a furore over its legality. More than 5,000 candidates, ranging from generals to actors and beer-lovers, are competing for the affections of a population which is gripped by gloom, being weary of declining living standards, late or unpaid wages, and the loss of Russia's super-power status.
So what is the likely outcome? Opinion surveys cannot accurately reflect the politics of a nation that stretches across 11 time zones, and where many voters do not make up their minds until the eleventh hour. Pundits here still wince at the memory of the 1993 parliamentary elections when - to the horror of reformers and the West - Vladimir Zhirinovsky seized 22.9 per cent of the vote, confounding predictions that the pro-reform Russia's Choice would come out ahead.
These days Mr Zhirinovsky's buffoonery (which recently included clouting a female parliamentarian) no longer seems to arouse much amusement. But he is a masterful campaigner and is lavishing money on TV advertisements, including one in which a cabaret singer unbuttons her blouse against film of him in action, and croons "the world would be so boring without you". Russian politicians are fast catching up with him, though, wheeling in image-makers and consultants.
But the polls suggest that the Communists are comfortably ahead, buoyed by nostalgia among the elderly for the years of security and cheap sausage. There are other strong performers, such as the hard-left Agrarians and Women of Russia. Mr Yavlinsky's liberal-leaning Yabloko, popular with the white-collar workers of Moscow and St Petersburg, is tipped to emerge as the strongest pro-reform party.
But perhaps the most intriguing dark horse is the Congress of Russian Communities, under General Lebed and Yuri Skokov, a former head of Yeltsin's Security Council. The general seems to be an orthodox centre-right patriot but there are chilling glimpses of extremism, when he speaks admiringly of Stalin's resolve and thunders on about being an "iron fist". A former boxer and hero of the Afghan war, he has won many fans with his promises to toughen up law and order and to root out corruption.
If the Communists emerge the victors there is a limit to how far they can enact their platform - a mixture of relatively progressive proposals (encouraging Western investment) and left-wing orthodoxy (controlling strategic industries and rebuilding the Soviet Union) - even if they were able to establish a hard-left controlling coalition. The Russian constitution ensures that the presidency is far more powerful than the Duma. Any attempt to shift the balance of power would require a two-thirds vote in the Duma, and three-quarters of the upper house - a tall order in the fragmented world of Russian politics.
What is clear, though, is that the election results will dictate the pattern of Russian politics in the next six months, and may slow down the pace of free-market reforms. At best, Russians can expect to see the Kremlin adjusting its rhetoric towards that of the winners. At worst, they will see it cancel the elections outright, probably blaming the Chechen war or flaws in electoral law. In a country bedevilled by so many other problems, Russia's tragedy would then be complete.
WHAT THE POLLS SAY
Percentage of the vote, 1993 figure in brackets
Communists 17.6 (12.9)
Far left, led by Gennady Zyuganov
Women of Russia 14 (8)
Centre-left, led by Alevtina Fedulova
Our Home Is Russia 11.2 (-)
Centre-right, led by Viktor Chernomyrdin
Yabloko 10.8 (8)
Liberal reformists, led by Grigory Yavlinsky
Agrarian Party 9.6 (8)
Left wing, rural, led by Mikhail Lapshin
Russia's Democratic Choice 7.3 (15.5)
Liberal reformist, led by Yegor Gaidar
The Congress of Russian Communities 7.6 (-)
Nationalist, militarist, led by Yuri Skokov
Liberal Democratic Party 6 (22.9)
Ultra-nationalist, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky
Forward, Russia! 5.3 (-)
Liberal, nationalist, led by Boris Fyodorov
Source: Komsomolskaya Pravda, 21 November 1995Reuse content