Never stand between the dog and the tree. That is the golden rule in all things, especially electoral politics, when the tree of the state is so inviting.

Boris Yeltsin's one political achievement was that he gave Russian voters a simple choice, the Communist Party or himself. It was inevitable which the voters would choose, and inevitable that - even with rigging the constitution, stuffing the ballot box, monopolizing the media, pumping cash, and firing guns - Yeltsin would win the presidency.The remarkable a- chievement of the Russian voter was that, having been treated like a dog for so long, he nonetheless voted to assure himself a choice in future. That's why Yeltsin never won a parliamentary election.

The Duma election Sunday is the first in which Russian voters will demonstrate what they think of the future without Yeltsin. It also will indicate what is likely to happen in the country's presidential election next year.

The state-paid media have tried for weeks to create a simple choice between good and evil. But the elections look certain to prove, again, what a clever creature Russian democracy is turning out to be.

According to the available evidence at this point, the Kremlin is likely to claim that Yedintsvo (Unity), the party led by Sergei Shoigu, minister for emergencies, has won at least as large a bloc of seats as it has now. However, because that minority faction of 65 gained strength only when joined by Vladimir Zhirinovsky's 51-member faction, it is Zhirinovsky's fate that is more important.

The polls and the regional political forecasts suggest his fortunes will evaporate. If so, the government bloc in the new Duma will be significantly weaker than before.

The Kremlin is also bound to trumpet that the new Duma will have fewer pro-Communist deputies than before. Although that's likely to be so, it would almost certainly be a hollow victory at best.

In fact, the government appears headed for a strategic loss in the new Parliament in three ways.

The first is the fate of the so-called reformers, the faction created by Anatoly Chubais. Although most national pollsters suggest Chubais's party, Union of Right Forces, could reach the 5 percent threshold required for proportional allocation of seats, the number will likely be fewer than before. It will be the end of the ideology of reform that has dominated Russian policy-making debate since 1991.

This will be welcome news for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. If Yeltsin and his family are tempted to replace Putin, the lack of support for the reformers makes it practically impossible to name one of them in his place. With the protection of the army and the intelligence services, Putin is already insulated from much of the electoral damage. A defeat for Chubais adds to that.

The second strategic defeat for the government is likely to be the way in which the regional governors move their political pawns.

Even if Yedintsvo scores about 15 percent of the total vote, it now looks certain the governors on whom the Kremlin has been counting will manage to deliver far fewer deputies than imagined. And 34 opposition governors look set to deliver far more deputies than previously expected.

The arithmetic is dramatic confirmation that Yeltsin's subsitutes lack influence. That has profound implications for the presidential campaign.

It means the opposition will dominate the new Duma, no matter how poorly Yevgeny Primakov and Yury Luzhkov appear to be doing on state television, or in state-paid polls, and no matter whether the Otechestvo-Vsya Rossiya movement runs second or third in the balloting. And the opposition will decide the outcome of the presidential election.

The third strategic defeat for the government is already obvious: Moscow itself is no longer the pro-government constituency that it was in 1993 and 1995.

What Primakov and Luzhkov have managed to do, and what the Kremlin's dirty-tricks campaign has failed to stop, is to consolidate the political interests of Russian affluence in the capital and those of many of the impoverished regions. The great divide between ''reformist'' Moscow and the rest of the country has been crossed. One of the foundations of Yeltsin's rule is no more.

The final political arithmetic should show that Russian voters have created a Duma with at least 250, and perhaps as many as 270, deputies who have no confidence in anything Yeltsin says or does. It is a clearer majority than the opposition has ever had in the Duma.

If this is the outcome, it's sufficient to be declared a resounding victory for the opposition to Yeltsin. Although Putin is his designated successor, such a result would demonstrate that Putin cannot win with Yeltsin's endorsement.

For Putin to win, he would have to line up the support of the Communists, Primakov and Luzhkov. Now the dogs can revenge themselves.