Unpaid Aides Gain Ears of Russia's Pols
Some deputies have hundreds of helpers, eager for access and other perks
MOSCOW — Vladimir Pchyolkin is not chairman of any committee in the Russian parliament, although he is a member of the none-too-central Committee for Geopolitical Questions.
No, he is just a Duma deputy getting through the legislative day with the help of 294 aides.
That's right: 294.
Many Russian members of the Duma, the rough equivalent of the United States House of Representatives, get quite a bit of help. Radical nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, as a Duma deputy, reportedly has 204 aides. Deputy Nikolai Medvedev has 166.
By contrast, Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov has two paid and no more than 10 unpaid assistants. US House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) has between 40 and 45 aides between his Washington and Georgia offices.
By law, each Duma deputy receives the equivalent of twice his or her own salary to hire aides. That comes to around $600 a month, total. Deputies typically hire between two and five full-time professional staffers with that amount. But they can add an unlimited number of volunteer aides.
The volunteer aides receive the same credential as the professionals, opening up to them more than just access to the Duma corridors and offices. People carrying credentials as an aide have unimpeded access to any government office or ministry in Russia, use of computers and copying equipment, and free transportation in Moscow or their home region, wherever they are based.
For many aides in towns and villages around Russia, the free transportation alone makes it worth their while to report in on problems with local pension payments or the spring harvest.
Lobbying from the inside
But for another sort, the appeal of the credential is to flash it as a way to waltz into the office of the head of local administrations - important people to Russian businesses - and be taken seriously. Aide status will also ward off most problems with traffic police or the local militia.
A lobbyist for a defense industry, for example, would love to be able to walk directly into the Defense Ministry to seek out purchasing officials. Others try to penetrate the Foreign Ministry to help friends or acquaintances with travel problems. (Under the previous foreign minister, the ministry's lobby guards were ordered to send Duma aides packing, in spite of their legal right to access.)
When Viktor Besakhov arrived in Moscow from Dagestan, he says he believed that to operate successfully as a businessman in the big city, he would need a credential as a Duma aide. So he bought one, he says, from "Magomed" - another Dagestani he met in the lobby of the Hotel Rossiya. He won't say for how much.
So he was not worried when his local militia called him into the station for lack of a permit to live in Moscow. He just pulled out his Duma credential, proving him to be an assistant to well-known democratic Deputy Mikhail Men.
It was a sting operation, however. When Mr. Men arrived at the station house 1-1/2 hours later, he found he had never seen his "assistant" before.
In fact, Men has discovered he has 68 aides that he has never heard of, all issued real Duma credentials by the central Duma staff. His signature on their documents is a blatant forgery. Most of the names, like Mr. Besakhev's, are typical of the Caucasus Mountains, although Men's district is near Moscow.
Men is eager to smoke out the rest of these phony aides before they sully his name in some unsavory business. He says that other Duma deputies have privately confided that they have discovered the same problem on their staffs. A businessman recently killed in the Siberian town of Belovo was found to be carrying credentials as an aide to a nonexistent Duma deputy.
Marina Rubinina, the main aide to the actual deputy from that Siberian district, says that shady businessmen like the higher levels of contacts the aide credential brings. "They like to be received by the heads of administration ... to go into government offices and be treated like serious people,'' Ms. Rubinina says.
Her boss, Communist Deputy Yuri Chunkov, notes that the not-infrequent reports that Duma aides have been killed are misleading. These victims carry the credentials of aides, often legitimately, but their business is usually criminal, he says. The killings are not an attack on the government or a politician but just violence between criminal groups.
Most of these killings have involved aides to deputies in Mr. Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).
A form of pay for helpers
Anatoly (The Frenchman) Frantsevich, an aide to LDPR deputy Alexander Filatov, was killed by a car bomb earlier this month. It was the second aide Mr. Filatov lost this year. The previous one was reputedly an active member of the Solntsevo gang, a major mafia group in Moscow. Zhirinovsky himself lost an aide already this year, one who was reputedly active in the Smolensky crime gang.
Most aides to the Duma are upstanding citizens. Deputy Men has 70 legitimate aides, most of whom are women who helped his election campaign. The only way he has to repay them, he says, is to give them jobs that offer free transportation and a meaningful role in helping him keep in touch with his district.
Even Mr. Pchyolkin, with his 294 aides, says he has his reasons. He is the youth organizer for the LDPR, so he has a national network of contacts - all armed with Duma credentials, the card that gets them anywhere they need to be.