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In Suburban Moscow By-Election, Ballot Offers Cautionary Preview of 1996 Presidential Race : Russia: A rabid nationalist is among those vying for parliamentary seat. Campaign raises fears for democracy.

October 30, 1994|CAREY GOLDBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MYTISHCHI, Russia — A gangland-style shooting bumped off the last Parliament deputy from this suburban Moscow wasteland, so residents will vote for a new one today.

And the main candidates are:

* An ultranationalist whose swastika-bearing supporters flash straight-armed salutes.

* A financier facing tax-evasion charges for his now-collapsed pyramid company, MMM.

* Another millionaire, this one considered a democrat, who claimed that mass hypnosis influenced the last elections.

* Not to mention a Russian karate expert.

Welcome to the wild world of politics, new Russian style.

This ballot circus could be watched as good fun if it was not considered a precursor to a bigger show--the 1996 presidential elections, when many fear that fledgling democracy will give way to Russians' love for "a tough hand."

That in Mytishchi these days is called "Russian order"--what Alexander Fyodorov, candidate of the black-shirted Russian National Unity movement, promises.

"Only we Russian nationalists can organize bringing the economy out of crisis and the revival of Great Russia," he said in an interview. "We have the will. Our coming to power is inevitable."

Maybe not this time. Fyodorov has not led any polls and claims to see the Mytishchi elections mainly as a testing ground for campaign tactics to be used in Parliament in late 1995 and in the 1996 presidential run.

But the jackbooted young men who have stacked meetings held with Mytishchi voters in recent weeks have already shown that, even if they lack the support to win, their catcalls, threats and ability to turn out scores of "brothers in arms" allow them to set the agenda.

The election has become "not about getting better lighting in Mytishchi but about 'What's your nationality?' " said Sarah Mendelson, observing the race as a representative of the National Democratic Institute, a sort of foreign arm of the U.S. Democratic Party. "It's become about national identity."

Millionaire Konstantin Borovoi--a democrat who is registered as an ethnic Russian and Russian Orthodox but has the Jewish-sounding patronymic Natanovich--walked out of a meeting where ultranationalists shouted at him to "Go home to Israel!" Nationalists have also strung up banners saying "Zionism will not pass."

Aside from walking out of meetings, none of the candidates has responded to these provocations with vigor, though Borovoi did print a leaflet with an "X" through a swastika.

Even without the extremism of the Fyodorov camp, the Mytishchi race appears to indicate a further rise in the Russian nationalism that helped Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky trounce other parties in last December's parliamentary elections.

In Mytishchi, candidates spouting the nationalist line range from an athlete who advocates universal training in the "Russian style" form of martial arts to a doctor who complains that "Russia is becoming the vassal of other states."

But that does not mean rabid nationalism will become the dominant note in Russian politics, sociologist Nugzar Betaneli said.

His recent polls of 6,000 Russians found that only 3% of the population believed that ultranationalist leaders would serve their economic and political interests.

"The population has common sense, and you can depend on it," he said. "The people don't ignore their interests."

If that is so, their popular pragmatism may lead them to vote for Sergei Mavrodi, the business whiz behind Russia's biggest investment fund, MMM, whose shares collapsed last summer. He now faces tax-evasion charges.

Mavrodi--who, if he wins, would enjoy parliamentary immunity from arrest--tells voters that he will be able to restore the value of MMM shares only if he is elected and allowed to work in peace. With an estimated 36,000 MMM shareholders in the Mytishchi district of about 500,000 people, and the rest of the vote likely to be split among 11 other candidates, Mavrodi could win by appealing to the most concrete of voter interests.

In a surprise choice of bedfellows, Mavrodi has joined forces with Zhirinovsky's band, the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Zhirinovsky paints Mavrodi as a victim of President Boris N. Yeltsin's government, just as he sees himself, but he does little to hide his lust for Mavrodi's money and has helped openly with his campaign.

Mavrodi has promised to invest $100 million in Mytishchi, including $10 million before Jan. 1--and the region of ailing defense factories could certainly use it. Even now, after the first winter flurries, some apartments have no heat, and home phones are few.

"No one is interested in politics anymore," Mavrodi said on local television. "Voters now are mainly interested in what a candidate can concretely give them."

That apathy, fatigue and disillusionment are perhaps the most salient features of the Russian electorate today. Betaneli's polls found that only 7% of Russians believe the party they voted for in December has lived up to their expectations. And only 12% trust any Russian politician; 53% trust none of them.

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