Russians Vote for Their Wallet, National Identity in Campaign

Cynicism, apathy may defeat reform path in Dec. 17 elections

'I'M going to vote for a party that wants to radically change the economic situation.''

Marta Kharitonova, a young student librarian in this quiet, graceful provincial town would scarcely call herself a voice of the people. But when she talks about her intentions at parliamentary elections on Dec. 17, she speaks for nearly every voter in Russia.

Russians may differ over who is best fit to improve the economy - Ms. Kharitonova favors the free-marketeer Boris Fyodorov. But with unemployment rising, inflation running at 60 percent a year, and nearly a third of the population living below the poverty line, bread-and-butter issues are uppermost in voters' minds.

''The talk is all about how there is no money to pay salaries, no money for pensions,'' says Sergei Voblenko, a former deputy mayor of Ryazan, now running for the Duma (lower house of parliament) on Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia ticket. ''I have to try to explain what needs to be done to change this.''

Candidates across the political spectrum are also appealing to a strong current beneath the surface of the campaign - Russians' search for a national identity in the wake of the 1991 breakup of the USSR.

From the feel-good patriotism inherent in the pro-government party's name, Our Home is Russia, to the xenophobia of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, some degree of national pride has loomed large in almost every campaign platform. Even the Communist Party, which once made a fetish of ''internationalism,'' now emphasizes its patriotic spirit.

Voters do not articulate such feelings as clearly as they voice complaints over more mundane aspects of their lives. But the question who Russians are and what Russia is in the post-Communist world is important to them. In a recent poll by the respected All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 43 percent of respondents said that ''Russia's rebirth'' was the best idea around which to unite the country.

Only partly does this reflect nostalgia for Moscow's former superpower status in the world. More important, it represents the average Russian's desire to live in a country that is able to look after its citizens.

''A lot of people have found themselves in the street as a result of the economic situation, and our society is completely unused to this,'' says Nadezhda Kurbachova, editor of Priokskaya Gazeta, Ryazan's biggest newspaper.

That puts socioeconomic questions at the top of people's agendas. Asked to identify Russia's single gravest problem by pollsters from the US-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) this summer, 49 percent cited the economic crisis, the quality of life, unemployment, or high prices.

Even Kharitonova, who says she highly values the intellectual freedoms that reform has brought, puts practical matters first. ''Spiritual freedom is important, but material freedom is also very important,'' she argues.

''If you are hungry you cannot really be free,'' she adds.

NOT that many Russians expect the Duma to make much difference. The IFES study found that 56 percent of voters regarded officials in Moscow as incapable of improving their lives. Yet despite the Duma's limited powers, the democracy of the election itself, as well as who wins it, is a crucial test of Russian stability.

High public disaffection could play havoc with the success of that test by prompting a low turnout on Dec. 17.

Tatyana Djuleyeva, who works in a bakery here, won't be voting. She worries about her future, she says, and how hard it is to find a decent job, but sees no relationship between who rules the country and her life. Like many of her friends, she says, ''I'm not interested at all [in the elections], and I don't know anything about them. I don't like politics.''

Even more-engaged young people, like student Oksana Laryushkina, are dubious. Asked what she has learned from the last five years, Ms. Laryushkina is blunt: ''Not to believe in politicians,'' she says.

In a more established democracy, such an attitude might be seen as healthy skepticism. But in Russia it is an indictment of the democrats who have led the crusade for political and economic freedoms.

''I'm on the side of democratic convictions,'' says Irina Khomyakova, a stylish young professor at Ryazan's Institute of Culture, ''But I'm not with the discredited democratic beliefs.''

Democracy in Russia has been discredited, she complains, because ''original democrats cared for their people, but our democratic politicians don't care about the people, and don't have time for the people.''

If only because they have been running the country at a difficult time of transition, reformists are taking the blame for everything that is wrong with Russia - from rising crime to the fraying safety net of weakened social services.

''Reforms are painful, and nobody warned us they would be so painful, that is why people are furious,'' says editor Kurbachova.

But in general, she insists, ''people support the democratic process, either because they have become property owners, or because they realize that it's bad, but that there's nothing better.''

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