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Yeltsin Grabs for Seat As Russia's Parties Play Frantic Musical Chairs

Chechnya war shakes up politicians before December vote

WASHINGTON went into an uproar earlier this month when a senator crossed party lines and became a Republican. But in Moscow, such defections are becoming an everyday occurrence.

Russia's political landscape is changing almost beyond recognition, partly driven by the war in Chechnya. President Boris Yeltsin's popularity plunged to single digits after Russia's brutal assault on the separatist Caucasian republic.

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His worsening fortunes are setting off a chain reaction among other Russian politicians, who are scrambling to realign before parliamentary elections in December and show they are either for or against him.

In the State Duma, the parliament's lower house, deputies are defecting from old factions and joining new ones almost daily. This is creating confusion among politicians as well as the country's vast electorate.

''The upcoming elections are causing maneuverings and panic, with the strategic change in the political landscape being Chechnya, which has sent most of the democratic forces into opposition,'' says one Moscow-based Western diplomat.

Yeltsin, who came to power as Russia's first democratically elected leader in 1991 on a wave of popular support, now enjoys backing from only 8 percent of the electorate, according to the respected Moscow-based Fund for Public Opinion. He trails behind reform economist Grigory Yavlinsky, who has 9 percent, while ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- who sided with Yeltsin on Chechnya -- came in third with 7 percent.

To compensate for flagging popularity among voters, Yeltsin embarked Monday on a two-week ''working vacation'' to several Russian cities. Although he has denied it, many speculate that the trip marks the beginning of his campaign for the 1996 presidential vote.

His aides have formed two new political groups to drum up support. They include the Stability parliamentary faction, which has attracted 36 deputies from at least six different groups -- ranging from Mr. Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats to the pro-reform Russia's Choice, led by former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar.

Once the unofficial presidential party, Russia's Choice has split over Chechnya, with Mr. Gaidar criticizing Yeltsin's forceful policy there.

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''It's a bitter thing for us to admit, but now we have support not only from the Communists but also from Russia's Choice,'' says Alexander Mikhailov, deputy chief of the conservative Agrarian Party.

Reformers, now divided, have sharply weakened their influence. ''In general, the democratic movement in the Duma is in its death throes,'' says Irina Khakamada of the Twelfth of December faction, a reformist group that nonetheless supported a strong hand in Chechnya.

The new unofficial presidential party that would replace Russia's Choice, analysts predict, will be either Stability or the Social Democratic Party, headed by Alexander Yakovlev, who was the main architect of perestroika (restructuring) under former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Yakovlev was recently appointed chairman of the board of Russia's largest television network.

Stability also clearly has friends in high places, and has been strongly criticized in the Russian press for receiving financial backing from eight prominent banks.

With the reformist camp in disarray, Stability could win centrist voters. It advocates goals similar to Yeltsin's, but Mr. Leushkin denies that his group is just giving him blanket support. ''We do not support Yeltsin as a personality; we support his ideas and actions,'' he says.

Lev Ponomaryev, a reformer who broke with Russia's Choice in December to form a more radical party, warns that Yeltsin may have gained the wrong kind of supporters -- which could threaten Russia's future as a democratic state.

''This is very dangerous for the president, because he's losing his social base. His natural base was democrats and intellectuals, and now he is gaining populists and fascist-style politicians,'' he says.

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