Close advisers to President Boris N. Yeltsin are publicly urging that elections mandated by Russia's new constitution be postponed and that Yeltsin stay in office at least two years longer than his elected term.
Holding presidential elections as scheduled in 1996 would be "untimely and destabilizing," the advisers warn. To bolster their case, they flash the threat that holding elections in the midst of painful economic reforms could bring to power neo-fascist lawmaker Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky or another would-be dictator.
Parliamentary elections should also be postponed for two years to give the 6-month-old legislature more time to learn its business, advocates say.
"I would be very much surprised if elections were held on schedule," one senior Moscow-based diplomat said.
The Kremlin has kept a polite distance from the initiative. However, since its proponents include such Yeltsin loyalists as Vladimir F. Shumeiko, chairman of the upper house of Parliament, and former State Secretary Gennady E. Burbulis, the idea is presumed to be a political trial balloon floated with the president's approval.
Taking up the challenge, one pro-business parliamentary faction has promised to collect a million signatures to hold a referendum on delaying elections--although early polls show that public opinion is against the idea.
The proposal has already divided Russia's democratic forces and could threaten the delicate political stability that has been achieved in recent months.
"It's usurping power; it's a step toward dictatorship," lawmaker Boris G. Fyodorov, the former reformist finance minister, said last week in an interview in the cavernous halls of the Duma, or lower house of Parliament.
"The whole idea of democracy is at issue," Fyodorov said. "In one thousand years, power has never changed hands in Russia in a democratic way. . . . Let's look into the eyes of some democrats, like Mr. Yeltsin, and see what he really thinks about democracy."
Fyodorov himself vows to walk out of the Duma on Dec. 13, 1995--the day on which his two-year term expires--whatever transpires in the meantime. But he put the chances of the elections being postponed at "50-50 today," because both president and Parliament have a vested interest in staying put.
"Listen, 75% of the people in this hall support it secretly," Fyodorov said in a comment echoed by many of his fellow lawmakers. "These people are not democrats. They want to live in Moscow, they want to get flats, they want to make connections, they want to get jobs here, enjoy privileges."
Fyodorov also scoffed at the notion that Zhirinovsky, whose popularity already appears to be dropping, is likely to seize the presidency if elections are held in 1996.
"Zhirinovsky is an export item for the West," the economist said. "We show him whenever we want some more money."
However, the suggestion that elections be postponed is a political gold mine for Yeltsin's enemies.
Reactionary filmmaker and parliamentarian Stanislav S. Govorukhin said last week that the president's men would hasten to delay because "they have money, power, and no chance of winning democratic elections."
The democratic forces' abysmal showing in last December's elections, as well as the upset presidential victories last month of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine, testify to the anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping the former Soviet Union and make the idea of postponing elections more attractive to both president and lawmakers.
Yeltsin has already postponed elections once. When he dissolved the old Supreme Soviet last September and called new parliamentary elections in an attempt to end the power struggle that had paralyzed Russian politics, Yeltsin promised to hold presidential elections this June.
But after the bloody October revolt by hard-liners, Yeltsin abandoned that promise and said he would serve out his five-year term, which is to end in June, 1996.
At the time, President Clinton defended that decision, noting that Yeltsin had been elected by a huge margin in 1991 and had won a popular referendum on his policies in April, 1993.
It is not clear whether extending Yeltsin's term would raise the hackles of his Western backers--especially if Parliament agreed to the deal.
"I don't think anybody cares," said Harley Balzer, director of the Russian Area Studies Program at Georgetown University in Washington. "As long as it's not a nasty, saber-rattling police state, I think we're willing to deal with all kinds of quasi-democracies. . . .
"There'll be a little hand-wringing but nothing major," he predicted.
Yeltsin had also repeatedly promised that he would be a one-term president. But in March his spokesman, Vyacheslav V. Kostikov, said the public may demand that Yeltsin run again in 1996.
Despite the 63-year-old Siberian's admitted bouts of depression and back pain--and unsubstantiated rumors of more serious ailments--Yeltsin remains the most popular politician in Russia, and perhaps the only one with the charisma to bring a semblance of unity to this fragmented giant land.
Possible candidates to succeed him include Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, economist Grigory A. Yavlinsky, Zhirinovsky, Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei M. Shakhrai, ousted Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi and Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov.
Burbulis, Yeltsin's old friend and adviser, proposed last week that the president stay in office until 1998 but promise not to run for reelection after that.
"Elections in 1996 will be untimely and destabilizing and will add no democracy to the country," Burbulis said.
The idea is a sure winner with Yeltsin's powerful Kremlin entourage, which will lose its power and perquisites when its meal ticket retires.
"What we have is a 'nomenklatura democracy,' " said political analyst Andrei V. Kortunov of Moscow's USA and Canada Institute. "The new political elites are trying to consolidate their positions, and they don't want to risk having elections. The question is whether they will be able to reach consensus amongst themselves."
According to the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, Kremlin strategists have already drafted a memo entitled, "On possible steps to stabilize the situation in Russia," which scripts a scenario for postponing both presidential and parliamentary elections.
The first step was taken last month, when Shumeiko announced that the president and Parliament had already agreed "in principle" to postpone parliamentary elections from 1995 to 1997.
Yeltsin spokesman Kostikov called the idea "interesting, but debatable."
"Russia is tired of the acute political fever," Kostikov said. "More than anything else it now needs to preserve peace."
However, Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin, who initially was quoted as favoring the idea, changed his mind after hearing the howls from constitutional purists, who called such a deal "immoral."
Two days later, Yeltsin's chief of staff said the president does not favor postponing parliamentary elections, because it would give the impression that politicians are trying to hold on to power.
Yeltsin has not commented on the matter.
The Kremlin memo calls for "initiating debate on this suggestion this summer and creating an atmosphere of support" through speeches and statements of regional leaders, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta. In September, all the parliamentary factions that signed Yeltsin's treaty of civic accord will be asked to support postponing the elections.
As an amendment to the constitution, such a move would require approval by three-quarters of the Duma and two-thirds of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Parliament--a difficult majority to muster.
If the measure does not receive enough votes, it will be decided at a referendum in spring, 1995, the Kremlin memo reportedly says.
"Maybe the majority of Russians will find the proposal to give up their democratic principles for the sake of stability quite convincing," the newspaper said sadly.
A new poll shows that the Kremlin is in for a tough fight, however. The July 15 survey of 4,000 Russians in eight regions found 65% were opposed to extending Yeltsin's term, and only 23% favored the idea.
Those surveyed were slightly more sympathetic to the newly elected Parliament, but only 29% of those polled favored extending its mandate, while 41% were opposed, and the rest were undecided.