What's At Stake In The Duma Vote

It's a test run for Russia's presidential election

Sasha Chupirov is lucky, by Russian standards. A robust man in his late 40s, he has a steady job teaching, is happily married, and is the proud owner of a five-year-old, cherry-red Toyota station wagon. Still, as he crouches, fishing pole in hand, on the icy banks of the Osha River in Omsk, a Siberian city 2,000 kilometers east of Moscow, he worries about how to pay medical bills and educate his granddaughter. Chupirov doesn't believe politicians can help. "Both fishermen and politicians tell lies, but at least the fish stories have an ounce of truth," he says with a wry grin.

As Russians prepare to go to the polls on Dec. 19 to elect a new 450-seat State Duma, or lower house of parliament, the mood in Omsk and elsewhere in Russia ranges from resigned to downright grim. But the economic despair felt by most Russians is not turning the election into an ideological contest over whether communism or capitalism is best for the once-mighty Soviet empire.

The issue this year is simple: corruption. The 28 parties and coalitions vying for seats in the Duma have similar positions on major social and economic issues. Pollsters say most of the 450 seats will be won by the person or party seen as a lesser evil, such as former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov's centrist Fatherland-All Russia bloc, or Grigory A. Yavlinsky's liberal Yabloko party.

Just as important, the vote is seen as a test run for Russia's presidential elections next summer. President Boris N. Yeltsin is prohibited from running for a third term, putting Russia's most powerful elected office up for grabs. Plenty of politicians want the post, including Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov, who joined forces with Primakov to form the Fatherland-All Russia bloc. "This prize is what Russia's political elite are fighting for. The media wars, the mudslinging, everything is focused on crowning a new king," says Nikolai V. Petrov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center think tank.

"HOT AIR." In Omsk, billboards featuring the Moscow-based leaders of Fatherland and the Kremlin's Unity bloc crowd the landscape. These parties, however, have done a poor job of wooing the hearts and minds of the mostly working-class Russians here. Their failings still give the local Communist Party, which is adept at grassroots politics, a chance. "My voters know my record, but more important, they know I live just down the street, in a home like theirs, with problems like theirs," says incumbent Communist Deputy Alexander A. Kravets, who is running for reelection.

Other candidates crowd the election in Omsk as well. They range from local businesspeople and concerned citizens to cronies of leading politicians looking to win by painting themselves as outsiders. It's this type of self-serving agenda that has many voters in Omsk disenchanted with the political process. "Out here in the taiga, we like peace and quiet, and try to ignore the hot air coming from Moscow," says Andrei Andreev, a 35-year-old government official.

Still, when the question turns to the economy, people can't stop talking about how bad life is. The pre-revolutionary mansions along Omsk's tree-lined downtown streets today house small, family-owned stores, businesses that opened in part because work in the region's military factories has dried up. Milk in the local shops costs 40 cents per liter. A kilogram of Russian-made pasta is also 40 cents, the same as in Moscow.

It all sounds cheap to a Westerner. But for people like Sasha Chupirov, whose $120-per-month salary is half that of an average Muscovite, shopping downtown is a splurge. To make ends meet, he cruises the streets of Omsk in his Toyota, earning an extra $175 per month as an unofficial taxi driver.

Instead of pointing the finger at the far-away Kremlin or Yeltsin for their plight, Omsk voters put the blame squarely on Omsk Governor Leonid K. Polzhaev. Even though Polzhaev's administration gets money from the Kremlin to pay pensions and other benefits, it is slow to dole it out. For example, Omsk owes more than $56 million in welfare and child benefits. Lilia Fyodorevna, a slender woman of 73, is one of 50 people who have taken the Omsk government to court this year, suing for back payment of pensions. The court refused to hear Fyodorevna's case. Polzhaev declined to be interviewed.

Fyodorevna has never been a Communist Party member. But on a frigid day in October, she came to hear Communist Deputy Kravets speak before a group of retired workers who used to toil at the Sibneft oil company before it was privatized in 1995. Now the company is controlled by tycoons with close connections to the Kremlin and the governor. Sibneft's ex-employees, though, face hard times. "When I think about economics, I think about how many potatoes I can afford to eat a day. Polzhaev doesn't understand that. The Communists do," she says.

FED UP. Polzhaev may arouse strong feelings in Omsk, but as governor he wields huge power. Governors have almost total control of voter registration and most local media. In Omsk, for example, Valery Kokorin, 50, tried to run for the district No. 130 seat. After 13 years of managing a construction business, he was fed up with high taxes and the antimarket policies of current Duma deputies.

But in his quest to run, Kokorin quickly hit a bureaucratic wall. The regional election commission, which answers to Polzhaev, refused to register his candidacy, saying Kokorin had campaigned illegally by showing up at a Workers' Day parade before the official kick-off of the election season. Kokorin insists he wasn't stumping and says he attends the event every year. Anatoly Rizhikh, general director of the independent Antenna-7 television station, says the attack is politically motivated, because of Kokorin's close contacts with the mayor of Omsk, the political enemy of Governor Polzhaev. Although four courts have ruled that Kokorin's candidacy is legal, the election commission refuses to put his name on the ballot.

Enough candidates have made it onto the ballot, however, to produce a heated race. The fights for three of Omsk's seats in the Duma are too close to call. The strongest competition is in district No. 129, where Polzhaev's candidate is running against Communist Deputy Kravets and the current deputy speaker of the Duma, Sergei Baburin.

Such keen competition for Duma seats offers some hope for Russia's fledgling democratic institutions. Indeed, Russians' cynicism over corruption isn't keeping them from going to the polls. "What good is this freedom otherwise? You can't eat it. You might as well use it to vote," says Chupirov. Current polls predict 60% to 65% of the electorate will turn out, much higher than the last American congressional election, when 36% voted. At the twilight of the Yeltsin administration, Russia's economy is floundering. But even the Communists say it's impossible to go back to the past.

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