MOSCOW -- In less than eight weeks Russia faces elections to a brand new parliament with as many as 126 different parties, movements, associations and other organizations putting forward candidates, but the outcome will hinge on the campaigns of a few key groups of reform- minded democrats.
This is their election. The supporters of President Boris N. Yeltsin stand to make tremendous gains, or they could throw the opportunity away through squabbling.
Following the bloody White House rebellion, the opposition is in disarray, in disrepute, or banned outright. The democrats are organized and seemingly popular.
But fractures already are appearing.
The leader at the moment is the Russia's Choice bloc, put together by former Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar. It is up and running and already fielding candidates.
But reform-minded rivals include a party formed over the weekend by Sergei Shakhrai, a vice premier, and an older group called the Party of Economic Freedom.
An aide to Mr. Yeltsin, Vyacheslav Volkov, said the president wants to sponsor -- or perhaps impose -- an alliance of all reform parties two weeks before the Dec. 12 election. Without such an alliance the election could be lost, Mr. Volkov said, because Yeltsin supporters will not be the only players in the elections, despite their apparent strength at the moment and what promises to be continuing news coverage stacked in their favor.
Mr. Gaidar told the Interfax news agency this week that there would be no "clear sailing" for his bloc as the vote approaches.
Mr. Yeltsin Tuesday formally banned extreme Communist and fascist parties from taking part, but two opposition groups whose activities had been suspended since the White House takeover were not included in the ban and can now nominate candidates.
One is the People's Party of Free Russia, which was the party of Alexander V. Rutskoi, although it has now officially condemned him. The other is the Communist Party of Russia, the largest and most moderate of Russia's four Communist parties.
Mr. Yeltsin apparently was limiting his ban, and including these two main opposition groups, in order to make the elections as legitimate as possible in the eyes of Russians and of the rest of the world.
He is clearly gambling that the devastating events of the parliament's revolt will reduce their support to a minimum.
That isn't to say that there won't be plenty of sniping from the sidelines.
The Russian political landscape today includes officially registered organizations that span the spectrum from the Federation of Cosmonauts of the Russian Federation to the Russian Association of Aides to People's Deputies, from the Movement of War Veterans for Peace to the Union of Navy Women, from the Fund for the Safe Development of Civilization to the League of Independent Scientists of Russia, from the Russian Press Association to the Young Republicans Union -- and every one of them, and dozens more, has the right to nominate candidates.
The new Russian parliament will have 450 members, half from new election districts and half elected through proportional representation.
Nearly all the analysts, though, at this point expect the pro-reform candidates to dominate the field.
Mr. Volkov predicts that Russia's Choice will win between 33 percent and 38 percent of the seats, and that Mr. Shakhrai's Party of Russian Unity and Concord will pick up another 10 to 15 percent.
Gennday Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party of Russia, said Saturday that the opposition stands little chance when the government has such a powerful grip on the media and the rule-making bodies.
In effect, these elections will take place without a hard left, with a weakened center and with a lot of "moderate" and "radical" democrats running around. Whether this situation reflects the orientation of the country as a whole is a question that is starting to trouble people here.
Moscow's New Newspaper published a chart attempting to show where the main parties are and how they relate to and interact with each other. The result looked like a mad scientist's depiction of a particularly unstable new chemical -- or perhaps the diagram of a football play that had gone horribly wrong.
But the unmistakable picture that emerges puts Russia's Choice foremost, being tugged at primarily by other reform-minded but independent groups.
Now occupying the "left" is a very weakened Civic Union, actually a centrist umbrella group that once seemed destined for real power but was crippled by its association with Mr. Rutskoi and his parliamentary followers.
The most significant "opposition" leader will likely be Nikolai Travkin, who is hardly in the opposition at all but who isn't too fond of Mr. Yeltsin.
Mr. Travkin, a witty and generally perceptive politician, was smart enough to pull his followers out of the Civic Union well before the September confrontation between Mr. Rutskoi and Mr. Yeltsin.
Russia's Choice, under this scheme, occupies a middle ground. Prodding it from the side will be a businessman, Konstantin Borovoi, who has threatened to pull his Economic Freedom Party out of the race but who will be pushing for even more radical reforms.
But what voice will this leave for the millions of Russians who don't care for the democratic and market reformers? These people clearly do not constitute a majority of the Russian population, but their numbers are not small.
Lyudmila Telen, an analyst with Moscow News, pointed out that with parties and newspapers banned, the extreme opposition is going to be driven underground -- a place where Communists have a long tradition of effective operations.
And as for the democrats themselves, she said, they will probably assume leadership of the parliament without an organized opposition represented there. Inevitably, in that case, an opposition group will splinter off from within the democrats, she argued, but lacking a formal structure with which to operate it, will fall back on obstructionism and eventual paralysis.