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The Party on Trial

THE trial of the Communist Party before Russia's new Constitutional Court could seem like a sideshow compared to the economic tribulations claiming the attention of most Muscovites.

Philosophically speaking, however, it could be something of a main event. At issue is the party's legality, removed by decree of Russian President Boris Yeltsin after last year's attempted coup. Remnants of the party have brought suit against Yeltsin's government, asserting that the ban against the Communists was itself illegal.

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As the trial opened recently, lawyers for the Communist faithful argued that the government's action was a step toward outlawing any party or group whose views conflicted with the official line. Before the irony of that argument had fully sunk in, the party's defenders went on to hail its accomplishments over the past 70 years - defeating fascism, building a modern society, fostering culture. In their view, these outweighed the charges leveled by the government to justify the ban.

Those charges have been butressed by volumes of once-secret material flowing out of party archives. Orchestrated terror at home and abroad and systematic pilfering of the nation's wealth are now a matter of hard documentation. It all gives considerable credence to Mr. Yeltsin's claim that what he banned was not a political party at all, but a "criminal" state structure - a structure that, ironically, once nurtured the judges, the plaintiffs, even Yeltsin himself.

The trial could degenerate into the type of political show, with a predetermined verdict, all too familiar to Russians. Or it might mark a turning point toward a new Russian judicial system, based on reason and the rule of law instead of diktat.

If that happens, the trial may even have some lasting benefit for millions of average Russians who could probably care less about the party or its sordid past. They'd simply like to glimpse a better future.

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