Russia's cloudy political climate may become clearer within days, but the outcome could be chilling for foreign relations and economic reform.

A scramble is on among Russia's many political parties to collect 200,000 signatures by Sunday, the deadline for qualifying to register for Dec. 17 elections to Parliament. The hurdle is the first for scores of factions devoted to causes ranging from communism to consumption of beer.President Boris Yeltsin complained several weeks ago that the competitive circus among as many as 250 parties could imperil the election. Since then, the number is said to have dwindled to around 70. After Sunday, the field could narrow to fewer than 10.

The critical test will come on election day, when the surviving parties must win 5 percent of the popular vote to take seats. As few as five may make the final cut. The latest poll this week suggests there may be only three.

The poll by Russia's Public Opinion Foundation, reported by Interfax, gives a huge lead to the Communist Party with 13.4 percent, ahead of reformer Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko bloc with 6.7 percent and the Congress of Russian Communities, led by nationalist Alexander Lebed, at 5.4 percent. No other parties hit the 5 percent mark.

Conspicuously absent is Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia party, although it claims to have collected 1.7 million signatures, the Open Media Research Institute said.

Western nations have pinned their hopes on Mr. Chernomyrdin to curb the country's drift toward the left. But the polls indicate that a Communist resurgence has become more than just a scenario.

Under the complex electoral system, qualification will allow the parties to vie for half of the 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, which have been set aside for party lists. The rest will be filled by individual candidates running in races for single-member constituencies.

Uri Ra'anan, a Russia expert and political science professor at Boston University, said that Mr. Chernomyrdin and other big names are likely to do better in single-member constituencies. Allied candidates and local bosses still could give the prime minister some power in the new Duma.

But despite doubts about polling, the failure to muster 5 percent cannot be seen as a confidence-builder for current policies. Surveys last month gave Mr. Chernomyrdin's party between 5 percent and 6 percent, according to the Intercon Daily Report on Russia.

Some analysts have predicted that the nationalist vote will be split, depriving Mr. Lebed, a former general, of significant clout. Another notable loser in recent polls is Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, which won over 22 percent of the vote in December 1993 elections, awakening the West to the nationalist threat.

But Mr. Ra'anan said the result will depend on how many votes are wasted on parties that fail to garner 5 percent. He estimates that between 30 percent and 35 percent of the votes will be thrown away on disqualified blocs. That would leave larger slices of the Duma to be divided by the leaders, favoring the Communists and Mr. Lebed.

Even with as little as 13.4 percent of the vote, the Communists could gain a majority of seats if many other votes are wasted, said Mr. Ra'anan.

While attention has focused on the fallout for business and economics, Mr. Ra'anan believes that greater dangers lie in imperialistic policies toward other former Soviet republics, human rights violations and frictions with the West. Mr. Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, warned Monday that an anti-reform victory could spark civil war.

Meanwhile, Intercon reported that the International Monetary Fund opened talks in Moscow on a three-year financing plan for Russia in apparent hopes that relative moderates will prevail. The "extended financing facility" could provide up to $15 billion.

But jockeying has already begun over the country's 1996 budget. Deputies have challenged Mr. Chernomyrdin's assumption that he can cut monthly inflation to the IMF target of 1.2 percent, suggesting a more realistic 5 percent a month.

Doubts are reasonable in light of the government's inability to meet its goal of lowering monthly inflation to between 1 percent and 2 percent in the second half of this year. The September rate stood at 4.5 percent, down from January's high of 17.8 percent.

But the ulterior motive for an easier target is to project higher revenues in the budget, allowing more subsidies, which would wreck IMF plans.