MOSCOW — Alexei Kondaurov is among a handful of wealthy businessmen trying to reshape Russia's Kremlin-dominated political landscape by injecting themselves - and their cash - into the picture.
As campaigning kicks off in parliamentary elections slated for Dec. 7, the role of rich wannabe politicians like Mr. Kondaurov has attracted a firestorm of controversy.
Many experts believe that it was the political ambitions of Yukos oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky - including his donations to opposition parties - that landed him in jail last month. Incidentally, candidate Kondaurov is a top executive of Yukos.
The Oct. 25 arrest of Mr. Khodorkovsky, and the expanding probes into his oil empire have unexpectedly focused the campaign on a potentially explosive, and politically energizing, confrontation between the Kremlin and big business.
"The election has suddenly become unpredictable," says Boris Nadezhdin, a leader of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), one of two liberal parties that have received extensive financing from the business community. "Previously hidden conflicts have emerged into the open, and now there is a real issue to fight the election on: Will Russia slide back into a police state or turn decisively toward the European model of democracy and human rights."
The race officially began Friday with candidates from 23 parties and blocs jockeying for 450 seats in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. But only a few parties are expected to garner more than the 5 percent of votes needed to enter the Duma.
It had been forecast by most observers as the first ho-hum post-Soviet Russian election, thanks to President Vladimir Putin's "managed democracy," the state's use of media control and legal limits on debate to avert political surprises.
But last month Russia's Constitutional Court, in a rare display of independence, struck down part of a media law that had banned reporters from commenting on election campaigns.
"The press was very afraid of that law, and of course it will be more open now," says Mikhail Melnik, head of the Center for Extreme Journalism, an independent watchdog. Still, he cautions that authorities still have many tools for pressuring the media. "It's just a small victory," he says.
As for the Yukos affair, it is possible that the Kremlin is orchestrating the prosecution not just to crush a wealthy challenger but to manufacture a popular campaign issue as Mr. Putin maneuvers to win a majority for his United Russia Party in the Duma next month and gain his own re-election in March.
A public opinion survey conducted by the ROMIR agency last week found that 54 percent of Russians had a "positive" reaction to Khodorkovsky's arrest, 29 percent had "no opinion" and only 4 percent were firmly opposed to the police actions. Many Russians angrily recall how the oligarch class got rich quick in the early 1990s by snapping up state assets in rigged privatization auctions - while most of the population sank into poverty.
The biggest likely beneficiary of public sentiment against big business would be the United Russia Party, led by state bureaucrats whose sole political program is to "support President Putin." With three government ministers and 30 regional governors topping its ticket, the party has reaped daily positive coverage in state TV newscasts and put its campaign posters in places forbidden to the opposition, such as the walls of Moscow subway stations.
United Russia last month expelled one Yukos executive, Vladimir Dubov, who had been running on its party list. Its leader, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, warned publicly that Russia's natural resources still belonged to the state and could be taken back from private businesses that exploit them "at any time."
The pro-Kremlin party has also declined to take part in any televised debates. Yury Volkov, head of United Russia's campaign committee said it was "inexpedient and dangerous" to spend time on "populist speeches."
The leader of SPS, Anatoly Chubais, has appealed to Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Russia's more left-leaning liberal party, Yabloko, to unify amid "dangerous signs" that Russia's fragile democracy could be unraveling. A merger seems unlikely, but could consolidate mainly urban and youthful voters who are pro-business and Western-oriented - a group estimated at about a fifth of the electorate.
The two liberal parties are vulnerable to the rising anti-business mood, however. Both have accepted huge donations from Yukos, now halted by the legal action against the firm. Up to half of Yabloko's budget may have come from Khodorkovsky, experts say. A police raid last month on a public relations firm handling Yabloko's electoral strategy included seizures of funds, computers and documents that party representatives say were vital to the campaign.
Most vulnerable to this line of attack is the Communist Party, which regularly wins about a quarter of the popular vote. Kondaurov is running on the Communist Party ticket. Russian state TV has relentlessly exposed him, another Yukos shareholder Sergei Muravlenko, and a few other "red millionaires" who have been financing the party, suggesting that the rich have conspired to buy out the party that claims to represent impoverished workers.
Last Friday, as Russia marked the 86th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the state-owned RTR network reported that hundreds of mainly elderly Communist Party members were demanding that all wealthy businessmen be ejected from the ticket. But Communist leaders deny any internal split over putting rich capitalists on the party ballot. "Wealthy people like Alexei Kondaurov join our ranks even though they know the authorities might attack their businesses," says Oleg Kulikov, the party's information chief. "We're glad to have them."
A former career officer of the Soviet KGB, Kondaurov says that private money is the only force that can challenge the immense state resources behind the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party.
"Russian democracy is under threat and something has to be done," he says. "Sometimes people active in business must get involved and work for change in the political system."
A rich capitalist's presence on the communist ticket is no contradiction, he says. The party that once nationalized all enterprises now supports private property, he says.
"It's not the same party that used to run the USSR," he says. "It's grown and deve- loped.... it has a critical role in the work of building democracy in this country."