Leading Article: Danger: vacancy in the Kremlin

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Russia's parliamentary elections on 17 December will take place in a climate of acute political uncertainty. Intrigue, violence and popular disillusion form the backdrop to a vote that will pose more questions than it will answer about Russia's future. The elections seem certain to produce a deeply fragmented State Duma (lower house of parliament), with no party commanding a majority. Communists, nationalists and other forces of reaction will probably perform better than liberal Westernisers, but party allegiances are weak in Russia and many elected members, thirsty for government largesse, may drift into the camp of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the centrist prime minister, after they take their seats.

More significant than the elections is the drama off-stage. President Boris Yeltsin, having suffered his second heart attack of the year in late October, is still convalescing in a sanatorium outside Moscow. It seems increasingly unlikely that he will run again for office in next June's presidential election. That contest will be critically important for Russia because the constitution, introduced after Mr Yeltsin shelled an earlier rebellious parliament out of existence in 1993, gives far more power to the presidency than to the legislature. Rival politicians, including Alexander Lebed, reputed to be Russia's most popular general, Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader, and Grigory Yavlinsky, the liberal reformer, are already jostling for the presidential succession. They view the parliamentary elections as a way of establishing their credentials for the contest next year.

However, their behaviour has aroused the hostility of Mr Yeltsin's personal assistants - including Alexander Korzhakov, his powerful chief bodyguard - who stand to be swept from the Kremlin as soon as the president leaves office. Certain figures in the Yeltsin entourage have even hinted that they may seek to invalidate the parliamentary elections if the result goes against Mr Chernomyrdin and the pro-government camp. Moreover, if the prime minister's party, known as Our Home Is Russia, crashes to defeat on 17 December, thus undermining the prospects of a Yeltsin or Chernomyrdin victory in June, it is conceivable that some of those closest to Mr Yeltsin will attempt to delay or cancel the presidential elections.

Such machinations would be less worrying, were it not that violence seems to be turning into a permanent feature of post-Communist Russian politics. Only two days ago, three hand grenades destroyed the office of an extreme nationalist MP at the parliament building in Moscow. Four MPs have been murdered since the last elections in 1993. Many MPs routinely carry guns. The atmosphere of insecurity has been enhanced by Russia's military crackdown in Chechnya, which was launched almost exactly one year ago and has predictably generated a backlash of terrorism and sabotage. In the latest incident, a car bomb killed 11 people last Monday in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

To cap Russia's troubles, a majority of voters seem disinclined to give credit to their rulers for the fact that, at long last, the government's economic reforms are bearing fruit. Inflation is falling, the rouble is stable and mass privatisation has given millions a stake in the future. However the memory of recent hardships is still vivid. Unless popular attitudes change before June, this could prove fatal to Mr Chernomyrdin. He remains on balance the West's preferred successor to Mr Yeltsin, but the West would be wise to remember that orderly transfers of power are the exception, not the rule, in Russian history.