In Russia, a field of candidates with big dreams

As the Dec. 7 parliamentary vote nears, contenders battle voter apathy and funding shortfalls to get their message out.

If grand ambitions were votes, the 4,500 candidates battling for seats in Russia's lower house, or Duma, couldn't be more evenly matched, as they set out to change the world.

They nurse dreams of reviving Russia's prestige in the world, of turning the country into a democracy that offers fairer opportunities for all - rich or poor - and of fixing everything from the health system to orphanages.

But for many candidates, testing political waters for the first time for the Dec. 7 vote, the campaign trail is an obstacle course. Campaign war chests are empty, Russian voters are lethargic and suspicious of their motives, and spreading their message is an all-but-impossible task.

"Apathy of the voters is the main problem here," says candidate Alexander Kapelyush, one of 29 candidates running for just two district seats in Kursk, a region about 300 miles south of Moscow. "They don't believe their problems can be solved. They believe everything is already decided, that these aren't real elections."

Deep in Russia's conservative "red belt," where many feel a nostalgia for the Soviet era, Kursk is a window on the state of democracy in the new Russia. No-name, penniless contenders struggle against impossible odds. Many voters, weary of the hardships of just earning a living, have little patience for hearing yet more promises.

Yet there are signs that Russia is gaining electoral maturity. The local election commission adheres strictly to the letter of Russia's vast electoral law - codified for the first time in a large, hardcover tome the size of a telephone book.

And while the talk in Moscow is of President Vladimir Putin clamping down on democracy across Russia, those committed to change in Kursk, an industrial city of nearly half a million, are offering voters a smorgasbord of choices.

Who's on the ballot

The candidates range from the wealthy and controversial Alexander Rutskoi - Russia's first vice president, who led the antireform coup against Boris Yeltsin in October 1993, was imprisoned, and later won a landslide victory as Kursk's regional governor - to a fresh-faced college student. The field also includes a housewife, an unemployed activist with a tractor, lawyers, titans of business, and a surgeon.

Anatoly Nevezhin, a retired former military commissioner of Kursk, isn't as worried about his competition as he is about getting out his platform of social justice. He says he only has funds for a "small number of leaflets" to remind voters that too many people are left out in a nation where "doctors and soldiers don't live, they just survive" on low pay. So far in Russia, he says, "Democracy is only for rich people."

Also having trouble reaching out - despite a few minutes of free air time granted to each candidate by local television stations - is Denis Eschenko, a student and businessman who is now studying to be a lawyer. At 24, he is one of the youngest Duma hopefuls. He was inspired to join the fray by his mother, a longtime consumer-rights activist, who ran and lost in a recent local election.

"Of course it's hard," says Mr. Eschenko, whose clean-cut image is capped with a grey suit and easy smile. He says that when he did the neighborhood rounds in Kursk, trying to get signatures to support his candidacy, "people were quite negative. It's understandable, because each day, three people would come for their signature. People don't even open the door, when they know why you've come."

Talking about the campaign, Eschenko is flanked by his mother and one of his former college professors, Nadezhda Vorobyova, a psychologist who says she is the "imagemaker" of "our Denis" and answers many of the questions about what she refers to as his "grand adventure."

The trio promises a lot: a "spiritual revival" of Russia; help for pensioners and war veterans, student scholarships, and credits for new apartment owners; higher wages for teachers and doctors; the protection of consumer rights; and more subsidies for medicines.

They complain that Eschenko's TV spot was "deliberately" ruined and that the free TV spots are so short they "could be called 'Hello, goodbye,' " Ms. Vorobyova says. The $240 price-tag to have a one-minute ad on more popular channels is beyond their reach. Still, this is the most promising Russian election yet, they say, because it gives voters more alternatives. "It is improving, otherwise we would never take part," Vorobyova says. Professional politicians "appear so often, people are tired of seeing their faces."

Eschenko visits student hostels and bus stops to meet people. He quickly began to get a taste of what the pressures of being a leader would be. "We went to one orphanage with 150 kids. They gave me a full list of things they need, but because I have no money, I can't do anything."

The varied field of candidates proves that idealism is not dead in Russia, says regional election commissioner Nadezhda Kozhukhova, a blond jurist who used to work in the prosecutor's office and who wields a dog-eared copy of the election law packed with Post-it notes.

Promises, promises

She sees room for improvement, however, in both the electoral law and the candidates. There are "many contradictions," in the law, she says, and no clear sanction for infractions. And recent rulings have made it especially tricky, in the media, to know where "information ends, and [prohibited] propaganda begins."

As for the candidates, many "don't know what they want to do in the Duma - imagine, they don't even know the law they are being elected with," says Ms. Kozhukhova. "Candidates want to give sweet promises, but they stay on paper. They deceive people," Kozhukhova says, scolding like a den mother.

Improving the quality of lawmaking is the reason Mr. Kapelyush decided to run for office. The trial lawyer looks the part, with penetrating blue eyes, a smart suit, and blue-and-gray power tie. He complains of a "collision of laws" that make no sense. "It seems the Duma has all professions but lawyers - we have military men, professors, officials, and singers," says Mr. Kapelyush. "Sometimes when there is stagnation, you need fresh blood."

As a candidate running on the liberal opposition Yabloko Party ticket, Kapelyush has received $2,500 in funding that he says he "can't do much with." He counts out every minute of TV air time, and measures every square centimeter of space he takes out in local newspapers.

Keeping tabs on campaign funds is the task of the Kursk regional election commission. Candidates open bank accounts when their papers are accepted and are limited to spending $200,000 each on the campaign - only half of which can come from the candidate's party. For some of the candidates, it's a laughably high limit that they could never hope to reach.

The United Russia Party, which has the endorsement of President Putin, has "such huge administrative resources it is not possible to fight against that," says Kapelyush. "Everybody sees that." A United Russia landslide will mean even deeper voter apathy, he predicts.

On the campaign trail, Kapelyush has a hard time convincing friends - much less voters - that lawmaking in Russia is a noble pursuit. "They are convinced that, once you are elected, you go there to steal for yourself," Kapelyush says.

Fellow Yabloko candidate Mikhail Smolin drives his tractor to villages to talk with voters. He's been in politics since collecting 2,000 protest signatures to freeze production of a Soviet-era gas plant in 1988. "The ruling party is engaged in an unprecedented campaign for power - we never had it before," says Mr. Smolin. "All the mass media violates all the laws, to influence simple people to think that only United Russia is capable of achieving anything."

Lack of cash means that the only people he reaches are ones he can shake hands with. "Sometimes I feel desperate, and full of despair, as if I am the only one facing such a colossal system," says Smolin, adding that the increased control from Moscow is "the main" reason he is running for a seat. "If it goes on like this, what is in store for Russia is a police state," Smolin says. "To govern poor people, one needs a police state. To govern free people, one needs a state under the rule of law."

Rutskoi's chances

Many in Kursk say a victory for Mr. Rutskoi - well-known, and for years considered Russia's political enfant terrible - is a sure thing. In his years as governor from 1996, he renovated the Kursk train station and the airport, and built veteran's hospitals and a massive arch to commemorate a World War II battle.

Critics charge that Rutskoi wasted money on the arch project, depleted the city budget, and vastly overspent on roads that almost immediately needed repair. Still, the war veteran - who flew more than 400 combat missions, was shot down twice over Afghanistan, and was decorated as a "Hero of the Soviet Union" - also paid pensions and ensured immediate help for families of sailors who died after the sinking of the Kursk, the submarine that took its name from the city.

"People must elect Rutskoi," says a ticket-taker on the night train from Kursk to Moscow. "He's the only one with prospects."

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