Jailbird Candidates Abound - Do Russians Care?

RUSSIAN politicians campaigning for office these preelection days have to worry - just like their American counterparts - about investigations into the peccadillos of their past lives. Quite a few of them, it seems, have criminal records.

A new Russian parliament is to be elected in a few weeks. The official election commission has prepared a list of 87 candidates who either are facing prosecution or have served time. At least 25 of the political organizations fielding candidates have one or more such persons among them.

Like so much of what happens in post-Soviet Russia, this describes something about the tenor of life in that country, but it isn't telling us exactly what we might think it is telling us.

The charges, for example, against these candidate-criminals are not being disclosed. As the anchorwoman on Russian Evening Television put it - ''It may have been business activity for which, in the past, there were prison sentences, but for which, today, the prize is given for 'businessman of the year.' ''

An ex-coup plotter

Prosecution and rehabilitation are distinctive features of Russian life. Take Anatoli Lukyanov, for example. Like many of the ex-criminal candidates, he is a member of the present parliament. He's the one who has threatened to sue Boris Yeltsin for slandering the Communist Party. Mr. Lukyanov went to prison on the charge of having been the chief ideologue of the infamous coup d'etat during which former President Mikhail Gorbachev was kidnapped. Lukyanov, until then, had been Mr. Gorbachev's chief operator in a new, fractious, more or less freely elected perestroika parliament, a man with a Gingrich-like talent for parliamentary manipulation. From being candidates for the firing squad, he and his fellow ex-traitors have become leaders of the ''conservative'' (read ''Communist'') trend in Russian politics.

Public opinion polls indicate that the Lukyanov types are very likely to be among the winners, in fact, in the December parliamentary elections. Gorbachev, on the other hand, who still talks wistfully about a comeback, couldn't, as one average Russian voter put it recently, be elected dogcatcher.

Crime is the most frightening aspect of life for today's Russian citizens, but, at the same time, it is an aspect of life in which they also participate. Private enterprise flourishes, but the ''New Russian'' who does very well as an entrepreneur freely admits he ''can't afford to pay taxes.'' An official study showed a retail trade turnover in 1994 of $49 billion, of which $20 billion, 40 percent, was in the ''shadow economy,'' meaning the nontaxpaying economy. About 7 million to 10 million Russians may not vote in December because, (a) they rent out the apartments where they are registered and presumably living, and don't pay tax on the rent money they receive, or (b) they can't afford to pay the registration fee on their apartments and therefore don't register their residence. Technically, these are all crimes.

Abortion is not a crime, but many non-Russians are shocked to learn that in 1992, '93, and '94 abortions outnumbered births in Russia by more than 2 to 1. In the last five years, the number of girls under 18 who have had abortions has more than doubled.

There continue to be signs that the conditions of life in Russia may improve, although some of the signs ring rather strangely to Western ears. The Russian banking world is an example. In contrast to the numbers bandied about in America each month when Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan discusses interest rates, Russians took cheer from an announcement by the Russian Central Bank that rediscount rates have been reduced - from 180 percent to 170 percent.

Pavel Bunych, a dour but respected economist, estimates that living standards in 1995 have fallen by 12 percent, a drop he considers to be unacceptable. Yet, a reasonably respectable public opinion poll asked a sampling of citizens to assess their own levels of subsistence and reported somewhat less discouraging results. A majority, 52 percent, find it ''difficult'' to make ends meet. Another 37 percent reports that life is not bad, although it takes working day and night to make it so. Only 3 percent rate themselves as well-off, and 8 percent consider that they live in poverty. The poll's analyst opines that, all in all, the results are positive, indicating that Russians are adapting to conditions of life that are still new and strange.

Widespread indifference

One of the more discouraging aspects of this preelection season is the pervading sense of indifference to the process. It is not at all clear whether the voters care one way or the other about the supposed criminal records of their candidates. The sharpest reaction has come, somewhat surprisingly, from the obstreperous Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose party's electoral list included 12 of those named as criminally tainted. He immediately dropped 11 of the 12. Here, too, however, all is not exactly as it might seem. Mr. Zhirinovsky is a proponent of an electoral system in which only the top three candidates of a party list are mentioned on the ballots. He won a big victory with this system at the last election. Only afterward did a research organization find that most of the unnamed Zhirinovsky candidates who became deputies in that parliament had previously lost in single-candidate elections, indicating a public lack of confidence in them. He has good reason not to call attention to the unnamed candidates in this election.

Perhaps the most cogent comment on the subject was made by the same television anchor-woman who remarked that business practices that once sent people to prison now earned them honor and rewards. The really smart criminals, she observed, are the ones ''who kill and rob with others' hands, and don't get caught.'' She added: ''Only fools end up in jail.'' If Russians, in other words, reject jailbird candidates, it may be only because, being jailbirds, they're obviously fools.

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