Russian Reformers Begin Campaign in the Hustings

THE fires have barely cooled in the White House but out in the Russian hinterland, the election campaign for a new parliament is under way.

In a fourth-floor hall in the administration building of this industrial region east of the Ural mountains, the leaders of Democratic Choice, a bloc of pro-reform groups, was meeting Oct. 8 to select their candidates.

Each of the 20 potential candidates for the five seats in Chelyabinsk region had filled out a background questionaire. One by one, they rose to answer questions as about 30 people in the room, representing the bloc's various constituencies, rated them on prepared forms. Some candidates were well-known figures in the local democratic movement, some backers of the local administrator appointed by President Boris Yeltsin, and others relative unknowns.

``Vladimir Norkin, born in 1949. Joined the democratic movement in 1988, a member of Democratic Russia, not a former [Communist] party member,'' the chairman read out. The room learned of his profession (a psychiatrist), his salary (70,000 rubles a month, about $70), that he had no dacha and no private car, and that he was a ``believer'' in God. Answering questions, Mr. Norkin voiced his belief that ``communist propaganda should be illegal,'' his support for the rule of law, private ownership, small business, and social guarantees for the population.

Finally seven candidates were selected but the choice alienated some of the bloc's members, two of which announced yesterday they would leave the alliance.

Among supporters of Mr. Yeltsin and his reforms, preparations for elections had been under way well before the recent dramatic events in Moscow. Since the summer, several new political movements were formed with a possible fall election in mind. The most prominent is Choice for Russia, organized by economic reform architect Yegor Gaidar with the participation of all the prominent reform ministers in the government and the backing of groups of private entrepreneurs.

Choice for Russia is at the core of the Democratic Choice bloc forming in many regions, pulling together older, smaller parties such as Democratic Russia, the Republican Party of Russia, and the Social Democratic Party. Other pro-reform groups have indicated they may act separately.

The pro-Yeltsin forces are hoping to seize upon their foes' disarray after the crushing of the parliament rebellion Oct. 4. The government has helped the odds by banning 10 extreme nationalist and communist parties, effectively leaving 15 percent of the populace without organized representation. The government has recently increased the number of seats in the lower house of parliament to be elected by votes for parties, a move intended to take advantage of the absence of real alternative parties.

Others have complained, among them St. Petersburg Mayor and prominent democrat Anatoly Sobchak, that the election is too soon to allow a truly democratic process. Many fear the government will use its domination of the state broadcast media to unduly influence voters.

Many of the anti-Yeltsin forces will enter the race as individual candidates or under the banner of smaller, still legal groups such as the Agrarian Party. In Chelyabinsk, for example, leaders of the regional soviet (council), the bastion of antireform forces, say they plan to run for the federal parliament, as well as for likely elections to a new regional duma to replace their soviet.

The new federal parliament to be elected on Dec. 12 will consist of two houses: an upper Council of Federation with two representatives from each of the Russian Federation's 88 constituent regions and autonomous republics; and a lower State Duma with 450 members.

The Central Election Commission completed drawing the election districts on Oct. 11, after a week of round-the-clock work by demographers using voter data, maps, and other material supplied by the regions.

Back in Chelyabinsk, the Democratic Choice bloc was already plotting to draw the district lines to make it more difficult for their arch-enemy, regional soviet leader Pyotr Sumin, to win. Though power has shifted to Yeltsin administrator Vadim Solovyov, Mr. Sumin remains very popular, especially in rural areas and in two smaller cities, Miass and Troitsk. ``We need to separate those places,'' says Boris Mizrakhy, deputy administrator and one of the chosen Democratic Choice candidates.

At the Election Commission in Moscow, however, political geographer Andrei Beriozkin is well aware of this game on the part of regional power groups. ``Luckily, they don't know enough to be able to gerrymander successfully,'' he says. The Chelyabinsk authorities, for one, failed to get the exact lines they want, although they claim satisfaction that at least one other opposition stronghold was shifted to another district.

Despite having banned the Communists, Mr. Mizrakhy and his colleagues are not sure of victory. Economic reforms have brought bustle to Chelyabinsk, once a dreary city filled with defense and metals plants, with a busy street market that fills downtown areas and privatized stores that are relatively well-stocked. But the inflationary spiral and growing unemployment have also brought pain to many people. ``People don't love Gaidar,'' says Mizrakhy, ``and Sumin will promise that if he is in power, prices will go down.''

The Democratic Choice bloc plans to carry out an advertising blitz, buying time on television and radio and using concerts and other means to attract voters. The local union of entrepreneurs has already collected 35 million rubles ($35,000) for this effort.

``I live in constant fear [the former communists] might come and expropriate my stores and factory,'' says entrepreneur union head Vasily Kichedzhi, who has acquired a meat plant and several retail stores through the privatization program. ``People like me want to be in politics to protect ourselves and our capital,'' he adds.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.