MOSCOW -- Last week, the Russian Duma was mourning the murder of one of its own.
The previous week, the Duma, the lower half of parliament, had to order the reupholstering of bloodied furniture after a brawl between deputies.
And every week in the Duma, Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky's flying spittle or his flying fists -- both byproducts of his stagy nationalistic invective -- land on someone.
The Duma: Intrepid pioneer of democracy? Or scandalous circus? It's a question that a largely cynical Russian electorate is asking itself as it heads to the polls Dec. 17 to choose among a dizzying 5,000 candidates for the 450-seat parliament.
The current Duma offers no clear answer. For every law that the first popularly elected and politically independent parliament in Russian history has passed -- and there have been many important ones -- there seems to have been equal time devoted to violence, debauchery or silliness.
For every law the Duma has passed -- about 150 -- President Boris N. Yeltsin has countered with 20 times as many that he simply decreed under his constitutional powers.
And, for nearly every political party -- and there are eight in the current Duma -- there have been shifts of loyalty. The speaker of the Duma himself began the term as a Communist-allied Agrarian party member opposing Mr. Yeltsin, but defected, at the president's invitation, to start a center-left party.
Though it may look different when history is written, there's no one in the Duma with the chiseled-in-granite leadership ability that is likely to look like a founding father of democracy, says Alexander Yakovlev, an adviser to Mr. Yeltsin and a former Soviet propagandist turned extreme anti-Communist.
Four parliamentary deputies in this two-year session died under mysterious circumstances. And last month, Duma members heard the plea of a legislative aide requesting official permission to return to the roof of the Duma where, in a drunken foray, she had lost her boss' ID.
"This acting like clowns, this conduct unbecoming in the Duma, has created distrust toward democratic procedures, undermining institutions of democracy," Mr. Yakovlev says.
Others, who take the long view, see the Duma as an imperfect precursor to an institutionalized system of checks and balances that the young Russian democracy will grow into.
"The most important thing this Duma has accomplished is that it survived," says Fyodor Burlatsky, head of the Duma's independent citizens' advisory council. The successful completion of its term, and the installation of a new Duma, will be the first experience in the continuity of authority.
The previous parliament ended in a bloody battle, when Mr. Yeltsin ordered the legislature disbanded after months of tensions between the executive and legislative branches. The constitution gives Mr. Yeltsin the power to disband the parliament at any time.
Mr. Burlatsky adds that the Duma's nutty image -- particularly Mr. Zhirinovsky's constant bellowing from within a circle of beefy bodyguards that follow him everywhere -- benefits the president, who can argue that he is the serious power balance to an unruly parliament.
"In general, our political culture so far is a vulgar culture; it's forming. And now is a difficult, controversial time, a step to the right, a step to the left, and you could be shot," he says, referring to last weekend's murder of Sergei Markidonov, a reform democrat and Duma deputy.
In many ways, the Duma exercises the same duties as the U.S. Congress. It enacts laws, debates budgets, conducts public hearings on policy issues and scrutinizes presidential appointments.
But in other ways, the Duma operates far differently. The guards outside wear camouflage fatigues and carry automatic weapons. The guards inside bar the public from roaming the halls of power.
Duma representatives, who are paid less than $300 a month, have cubbyhole offices no larger than a U.S. congressman's supply closet. Most receive none of the respect accorded members of Congress -- in fact it's hard to find Russians who can actually name their directly elected representative.
But there are perks: All out-of-town deputies receive a free Moscow apartment, unlimited air transportation to and from their districts and chauffeured cars.
Also, deputies don't have to show up for work. Though the law forbids it, deputies often hand over their electronic voting cards to colleagues, allowing them to vote for them.
It is common for a quorum to exist electronically without anywhere near the required 226 members being there. And when the speaker of the Duma calls for a vote and says "Be thrice attentive," he is taken to mean, "Use someone else's card to vote as well as your own."
The biggest problem of the Duma -- and the one that prevents it from having the kind of power it might -- is that there is no "majority force," says Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, a member of a democratic reform party, Russia's Choice, and author of a series of ribald books about the Duma.
As a result of this, he says, there is little ability to get the Duma's eight blocs to collaborate or compromise. These blocs include the democratic reformists who advocate free-market economics, the die-hard opposition composed of Agrarians and Communists, and Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party. A group of "center" parties swings both ways.
This broad range is expected to become even broader in the Duma to be seated after the December elections. There are 43 parties running -- analysts believe the number winning seats could be 12, perhaps as many as 20.
Common wisdom is that the Communist Party -- the third-largest in the Duma, with 45 seats -- will surge ahead to win a plurality. But even a plurality -- which Mr. Zhirinovsky's party enjoyed this term -- won't ensure control if many other parties also win seats.
Because of the shifting nature of the Duma groups, many contradictory laws were passed, says Alexander Sobyanin, a consultant to democratic reform parties.
"The Duma adopted a civil code that has a [free] market character," he says. "But it adopted a land code that forbids private ownership [of anything but small plots]. It promoted market reform in the industrial sector, but excluded agriculture and the military industrial complex."
Yet the fact that they were able to adopt laws at all "amazed me," asserts Mr. Burlatsky, who says the early days of the Duma were "chaos and pandemonium" when rank amateurs filled the halls.
"You'd see a deputy trying to amend a law from his seat after it had been through committees," he says. "They adopted a minimum wage, passed the law, but it never came true because they knew they had no money for it; the budget was already set."
Mr. Burlatsky doesn't think the new Duma will be much better, given what the ballot offers -- a lot of celebrity names to draw votes to the party lists and many candidates with no legal experience.
He and other observers also suggest that the new Duma will do well, like its predecessor, just to survive, staying out of confrontations with the president during the spring, when a highly contested presidential campaign will be conducted.