SARATOV, Russia — Every workday for the last eight years, Tatyana Yevstafyevna has set up shop on the same patch of sidewalk, tacking newspapers to a plywood stand and selling them to passersby. Between customers, she reads her wares: dailies, tabloids, TV guides. But so far, she said, they haven't helped her choose whom to vote for Sunday.
"I haven't decided yet," the stout 60-year-old sheepishly said last week. "I'll probably make up my mind in the voting booth."
If so, she won't be alone. In many polls, the leading contender in Russia's parliamentary elections is "undecided." And that means the outcome--which will set the stage for presidential elections in six months--is likely to depend as much on voters' moods as on their convictions.
"There is a huge variation of opinion, and about 20% of voters will change their minds at the last minute," said Dmitri Kozenko, editor in chief of the daily newspaper Saratov.
The vote is unpredictable not because Russians lack information or opinions; Tatyana Yevstafyevna hands out big doses of both with her newspapers and crossword puzzles. The problem is that in Russia's primitive democracy, political beliefs still don't translate directly into voting behavior.
"We still haven't found a way for the people to communicate with those in power," said Anatoly Rodionov, a candidate from the liberal Yabloko party. "Our people aren't mature. Our parties aren't mature. Our democracy isn't yet mature."
After only eight years of nominal democracy, parties in Russia still tend to be fluid groupings of political elites brought together less by ideology than by the magnetism of one or two central personalities. Two of the three parties topping national polls were founded within the last five months.
As a result, voters here in Saratov are focused not on the local campaigns but on the national power struggle between pro- and anti-Kremlin personalities and alliances. And while the local candidates are trying hard to get their attention by visiting factories, passing out fliers and buying local TV time, the efforts don't seem to be making much of an impact.
"Maybe when I get into the voting booth I'll see a familiar name," said Galina Kosovnina, a 50-year-old plumbing supplies salesclerk. "May I'll just cross them all out."
Russia's parliamentary elections are unusual in that voters will fill out two ballots. The first elects a candidate to be the district's representative in parliament; half the seats in the 450-member State Duma, or lower house, are from these "single-mandate" districts. The remaining half are allocated proportionally to parties that receive more than 5% of the total on the second ballot, in which voters express a preference for one of 26 nationally registered political parties.
The Communists remain Russia's most established party with the strongest grass-roots network, but they no longer dominate the country's political debate. They can count on the support of about 20% of the population, mostly the elderly and disenchanted.
The rest of the electorate is volatile, often contradictory in its thinking and largely up for grabs.
Many single-mandate candidates, aware of voters' dislike for parties, are deliberately unaffiliated. Here in Saratov, a formerly closed military industrial city 450 miles southeast of Moscow, half of the 14 candidates in the city district are listed as independents, including two of the top contenders.
As in the West, voters' top concern is the economy. Saratov, once the capital of the Soviet Union's electronics industry, has weathered the financial crises a bit better than most. Regional officials estimate that local factories are working at only about one-third their former level, but consumer manufacturing and services have made up some of the difference. Officials claim that the unemployment rate is below 2%.
Nonetheless, disenchantment remains high.
"I lived well under the Communists. I didn't have a car, but I didn't lack money," said 44-year-old Vladimir Roshkov, who lost his job at a glass factory and works for a glassware distributor. He gets paid regularly and at higher wages, but he misses the stability of the old days. He said he'll vote for the Communists on Sunday.
"Now every time you go to the hospital you have to pay," he said. "Every time you go anywhere you have to pay. We work and have nothing to show for it. It was better the way we used to work before."
Tatyana Yevstafyevna--who gave her first and middle names, but asked that her surname not be used--hasn't had an easy life since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. A former gymnastics coach with a college education, she is not happy making her living by standing on the street all day. She said local officials are hard on small-business people, demanding high license fees and sales taxes.
She heaped scorn on President Boris N. Yeltsin and his coterie of advisors once hailed as "reformers" but doesn't think the Communists are the answer.