NORILSK, RUSSIA — MORE than a few eyebrows were raised in this industrial Arctic city when the local police chief garnered almost twice the required number of signatures needed to put his name on the ballot in next month's parliamentary elections.
``There were lots of rumors about how I was able to get so many people to sign,'' grins Valery Kolmakov, who has a portrait of Vladimir Lenin above his desk. ``I heard, for example, that I made the highway patrol stop motorists and `suggest' they sign my petition. But I've received no official complaints, so it must have just been a joke.''
Whether the accusations are true, the implications are clear: The promise that new parliamentary elections will bring to power fresh faces to replace the Communist-era elite is not being fulfilled. And the election has so far failed to generate the popular involvement that might bring real change.
``I don't care about elections,'' says Yevgeniya Zaitseva, a widow who works as a department store cashier to supplement her pension. ``We desperately want to live better. But so many promises have been made in the past, and nothing has changed.''
The 270,000 residents of this gritty town within the Arctic Circle are far removed from the political turmoil of Moscow. But the apathy here is typical of many cities across Russia as the vast nation prepares for elections for the Federal Assembly, which will replace the Soviet-era parliament President Boris Yeltsin dissolved on Sept. 21.
Norilsk's non-party-affiliated candidates all hail from the former Communist establishment, including former local Supreme Soviet chairman Viktor Sytnov, lawyer-turned-businessman Alek-sei Sumarokov, and police chief Kolmakov.
Five other candidates nominated by their parties to run on the list for seats in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, all represent reformist parties that support Mr. Yeltsin.
None has any chance of getting a seat. Any party that wins more than 5 percent of the national vote will share the 225 seats in proportion to the number of votes each gains. But the candidates from Norilsk are too far down their parties' lists.
``It's not realistic that I'll be elected,'' says Democratic Party of Russia candidate Valery Marushchak. ``After all, I'm No. 80.''
In any case, few Norilsk residents are aware of the differences among the 13 political parties that have registered nationwide to participate in the elections. Norilsk blindly supports Yeltsin - it gave him one of the highest ratings in Russia during the April referendum on his leadership. But most people here find it hard to articulate Yeltsin's policies.
``I like Yeltsin,'' says collective farm worker Nadia Zimonina, who grows hothouse flowers for weddings and funerals. ``Somebody has to be in charge.''
But it is doubtful that those in charge of running the country will come from Norilsk. Along with the State Duma's party seats, two candidates from Norilsk will be competing for two constituency seats - along with five candidates from Krasnoyarsk, an industrial center 900 miles to the south with which Norilsk shares one huge electoral district. The seats will be won on a simple majority basis, which means larger Krasnoyarsk will probably take them all, says Andrei Bystrov of the Norilsk Election Commission.
Far away in Moscow, the election debate centers around whether economic reforms are moving too fast or too slow as Russia transforms itself from a planned to a market economy. But in the provinces, this type of debate is meaningless.
A city accessible only by airplane, Norilsk was built on the barren Siberian steppe by an odd mixture of political prisoners and devout Communists.
Today, Norilsk is little more than a motley collection of badly run factories that relentlessly churn out 75 percent of Russia's copper and 90 percent of its nickel, a city where pollution is so bad the speckled snow resembles cookies-and-cream ice cream.
All residents are immigrants, many lured to the area by salaries higher than the national average. Many want to leave, but inflation has eaten up most of their savings following the Soviet collapse. The majority cannot afford the plane fare back home.
Mayor Vasily Tkachov says a recent public opinion poll revealed that 40 percent of Norilsk residents are uninterested in elections, believing that what goes on in Moscow will not affect their lives.
Others say politics are unimportant in Norilsk because the real driving force is not government but industry - particularly Norilsk Nickel Kombinat, the huge conglomerate that has resisted attempts at privatization.
``Everyone depends on the Kombinat for housing, for transport, for elections, for bread and milk. The Kombinat finances everything, so it has the most power,'' Norilsk Copper Factory director Alexander Burukhin says. ``The director of the Kombinat has more power than any politician.''