Perhaps mindful of democrats' slumping popularity, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin brandished an iron fist Thursday with an ordered crackdown on fascist activities, which he denounced as "particularly provocative" in this 50th year after the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.
But the presidential decree demanding tighter laws against public displays of hate, prejudice and intolerance immediately spurred speculation among political rivals that Yeltsin was trying to hamstring nationalist candidates ahead of December parliamentary elections.
The decree, ordering a rewriting of laws and prosecution procedures in the vaguely defined realm of "political extremism," had been promised by Yeltsin in his Feb. 16 state of the federation address.
In that broadside against growing lawlessness, he touched a nerve with the masses of fearful, disillusioned Russians who have become convinced that freedom has opened the door to disorder.
With the half-century anniversary of the Allies' World War II triumph little more than a month away, the tough line against fascism was likely to be well received by veterans and the elderly, who are among the most vulnerable to hardships brought on by the transition from central planning to a market economy.
"Incidents involving the fanning of social, racial, national and religious discord and spreading fascist ideas . . . are happening on a wider scale and acquiring a more audacious character," Yeltsin said in explaining his orders to law-enforcement and justice agencies.
Ironically, on the day Yeltsin issued the edict getting tough with purveyors of Nazi propaganda, one of Russia's most notorious political extremists was released from jail while prosecutors continue investigating charges stemming from his televised threats to execute human rights leaders. Alexei I. Vedenkin, leader of the radical Russian National Unity Party and a former cohort of ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, was discharged from investigative custody at the infamous Lefortovo Prison, the Moscow prosecutor's office reported.
It is fear of unfettered hate-mongers like Vedenkin that is thought to be driving voters to abandon democrats' liberal aims in favor of political leaders vowing a return of Stalinist order.
More than 150 avowedly fascist newspapers and magazines are in circulation in Russia; black-shirted toughs have been organizing armed militias.
A recent poll by the Social Opinion Fund reported 43% of Russians fear fascists could come to power here--an expectation fueled by a profusion of television documentaries showing goose-stepping skinheads training for a coming war against minorities and liberals.