MOSCOW -- Today is the flip side of the coin for Russian politics.

Just two months ago tanks were firing in the streets. Today a nation goes to the polls.

Two months ago desperate men, armed and single-minded, took Russia to the brink. Today opponents vie for television advertising time.

In October the question of power was put to a test of blood and force. Now, Russians by the millions are peacefully creating a new parliament and deciding on a new constitution.

The country heads into today's elections in a state of exhaustion and cynicism. But from this vote will come the new shape of Russian politics.

The Yeltsin factor

The central question probably comes down to this: Does President Boris N. Yeltsin still have that old magic?

For him, the most important part of today's balloting is the referendum on his new constitution. He has to have a majority of those voting, and at least a 50 percent turnout, to get it approved.

In the past, whenever the going has gotten rough for him, he has been able to turn to the Russian people and draw on their support.

But the proposed constitution, on which he has in some ways staked his authority, has stirred little excitement.

Thursday night Mr. Yeltsin warned that the danger of civil war that existed in October could return if the constitution fails.

Yet plenty of respected reformers are against it, arguing that it creates a presidency with near dictatorial powers.

Mr. Yeltsin's biggest effort in the past week has been to get out the vote, to pass the 50 percent barrier. In addition to Thursday's address he flew down to the Caucasus early in the week, where he defused a movement among restive regions to boycott the elections entirely.

Possibility for chaos

If the constitution should nevertheless go down, Russia will be thrown into an uproar. The country will have a new two-chamber legislature with no legal grounding. Mr. Yeltsin will have been repudiated. Power will flow to whoever can make a believable claim for it.

Yegor T. Gaidar, head of the Russia's Choice bloc and a Yeltsin ally, said in St. Petersburg late last week, "The most important thing for us is to adopt the new constitution."

Otherwise, he said, "the country may find itself amid the same chaos and disorder on Dec. 13 as we had before the October events.

"Then everything depends on whom the defense minister may choose to obey."

If the constitution is approved in today's vote, but by only a slight margin, it is almost a certainty that the new legislature will sense Mr. Yeltsin's vulnerability and begin to tinker with it.

And this is a legislature -- composed of an upper Federal Assembly and a lower Duma -- that Mr. Yeltsin is going to have to live with. He can't dissolve it as he did the old Soviet-era Congress of People's Deputies. He called the election. He designed the new system. He justified himself once in the eyes of a majority of Russians when he disbanded the old parliament and attacked its die-hards, but he couldn't do it a second time.

Can't dissolve this one

"Russian democracy would not survive one more dissolved parliament," Mr. Gaidar said.

It should be an interesting legislature, at any rate. Thirteen parties or blocs are putting up candidates.

Russia's Choice, the favorite going in, has put on the slickest TV ads, in which children feature prominently. They represent the future. The ads are designed to appeal to young adults.

The Communists are led by Gennady Zyuganov, who announced Friday that Russia was being weakened by a worldwide "behind-the-scenes" conspiracy directed by Washington.

A centrist group of industrial managers called the Civic Union advocates a "Chinese model" of economic reform, but critics say its program would be more likely to re-create the Ukrainian economic catastrophe on a Russian scale.

Extreme nationalist

A captivatingly extreme nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has handled himself best on television and suddenly seems to have everybody talking. He wants to restore the old Soviet Union but he has dropped an earlier proposal to conquer Finland.

He excoriates people from the Caucasian republics, much to the delight of the many racists in Russia today. He denounces the West and advocates close ties with Iraq and China.

A Yeltsin ally, Mikhail Poltoranin, tried to stir his troops Friday by declaring that Mr. Zhirinovsky Liberal Democratic Party is now the second most popular party in the country, after Russia's Choice.

He warned that further dithering by the democrats could propel Mr. Zhirinovsky into the presidency within a year.

Mr. Zhirinovsky, by the way, strongly supports Mr. Yeltsin's proposed constitution, precisely because it creates a powerful presidency -- he hopes someday to fill that post himself.

In principle there are five pro-reform parties fielding candidates, although one of them -- the Women of Russia -- is an offshoot of an old Communist Party organization.

The one real difference among them is over the question of inflation -- whether to fight it through a tough fiscal policy, or through increased government investment in the economy.

But it's clear the democrats haven't split over inflation so much as over personal ambition. Each bloc has invited the others to withdraw their candidates to avoid a split vote, but so far there have been few takers.

Alarmed by Mr. Zhirinovsky rise, though, three democratic reform groups -- Russia's Choice; the Movement for Democratic Reform, led by Mayor Anatoly Sobchak of St. Petersburg; and the so-called Yabloko, or Apple, grouping led by the economist Grigory Yavlinsky -- issued a joint appeal Friday night.

"The increase in extremist and fascist moods in Russia," it said, ,, "gives the spiritual heirs of Hitler a chance to become deputies of the state Duma."

It called on Russians to repudiate anyone appealing to extremist opinion.

The Federal Assembly will have two members from each region or autonomous republic of Russia. The Duma will have 450 members -- half elected from districts and half by proportional representation.

The candidates

All told, there are 1,567 candidates. The oldest is 75, and the youngest is 21. There are 53 unemployed people running for seats, of whom the greatest number are Communists.

Only 2.5 percent are lawyers. Just 5.5 percent are women. One candidate is a private detective.

Another candidate is Anatoly Lukyanov, who is on trial for his role in the 1991 Soviet coup. If elected, he'll get legislative immunity.

About 107 million Russians are eligible to vote, including 11,000 living in Estonia and thousands more in Lithuania and Moldova.

One thing Russians won't do at the ballot box today is end the political fighting here.

Opposition to emerge

The new deputies will, in all likelihood, rearrange their alliances once they see who's in and who's not, but clearly a vocal opposition to Mr. Yeltsin will emerge.

"Lately, I've been haunted by a nightmare," Mr. Gaidar said in an interview with Izvestia. In it, he walks into the new parliamentary chamber and discovers that the new legislature is made up of all his old enemies from the previous one.

Actually, it won't happen. There are just 100 former deputies among today's candidates.

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