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The World : Russia : The Free Market, at Warp Speed, Powers Parliamentary Elections

December 17, 1995|Bill Thomas | Bill Thomas, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, just returned from a trip to Russia, where he has been writing about political and social affairs since 1990. His latest book, "Capital Confidential" (Pocket Books), will be published early next year

WASHINGTON — A hand slides an envelope bulging with money across the top of a desk. A grim-faced bureaucrat takes it and stuffs it in his pocket. Business-as-usual in the former Soviet Union.

But wait. Suddenly, action on the TV freezes. Prison bars appear, accompanied by the sound of a cell door slamming shut. Cut to the uniformed figure of retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, Russia's version of Colin L. Powell and leader of one of the 43 parties taking part in today's parliamentary elections.

"My advice," he sternly warns, "is don't take bribes."

With Russian voters preparing to cast ballots today, some 5,000 candidates vying for seats in the lower house of the federal legislature bombard the media with campaign ads, pledging everything from a crackdown on government corruption to a return to communism.

"The Communists are capitalizing on people's fears of crime and inflation with the same slogans they've been using for 80 years," says Moscow political consultant Alexei Babachkin.

The message may not have changed, but the delivery has. In fact, Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov could be the most effective campaigner in the race. In the previous regime, party officials ran unopposed. Now, with polls predicting a big win for the Communists, Zyuganov claims to welcome all competition. If politics is the art of getting people to like you, the comeback Communists are courting voters as shrewdly as anyone.

Normally a tough-talking Marxist, Zyuganov has shown he can turn on the charm. During a recent campaign swing through Belgorod, in southern Russia, he met with an angry crowd of pensioners complaining about local bank failures. "Comrades," he said, "we will solve all your problems, but first you have to vote for us." Then, to make sure the senior citizens remembered him on election day, Zyuganov passed out wallet-sized calendars with his smiling face on the front.

In the old days, that would have earned him a one-way ticket to Siberia for starting a personality cult. Now, it's smart politics.

"Compared to what some of our opponents are doing, we're pretty conservative," say Communist Party campaign director Valentin Kupstov, adding that his party's high name recognition allows it to focus on issues rather than on election gimmicks.

That's not the case for most of the other parties--groups with names like Transformation of the Fatherland, the Russian Lawyers Assn. and the Beer Lovers' Party, which wants beer drinkers, not vodka drinkers, to govern the country.

"Right now, a lot of people can't tell one party from the other," says Michael Caputo, former Russia manager for the International Electoral System Foundation, which observes elections. Some polls show as many as 40% of Russian voters see no difference among the parties.

That is one reason candidates need all the media exposure they can get. A $2-million limit on campaign spending by parties--individual candidates have a $200,000 cap--plus the high cost of air time forces everyone to be cost-conscious when it comes to advertising. But for a few political blocs, money seems no object.

Our Home is Russia, the well-heeled centrist party of Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, has hired a U.S. ad agency, DMB&B, to market its candidates. The problem is that foreign consultants don't always understand Russian psychology or nuances of the language.

At a news conference introducing the party's campaign poster, which shows Chernomyrdin building a roof, a company spokesman sent reporters into fits of laughter when he said, "Every citizen, every organization, every enterprise in the country needs a roof." The word for "roof" in Russian has come to mean high-priced Mafia protection.

This isn't the first time outside media advisors have helped Chernomyrdin look foolish. A campaign poster for a previous election showed him holding a rooster--a slang term for homosexual in Russian.

In a play for Russian's youth vote that recalls Bill Clinton's use of Fleetwood Mac, Our Home is Russia, assisted by Comspan Communications of Los Angeles, staged rock concerts in various Russian cities, featuring such talent as Kool & the Gang and MC Hammer.

Yet, it may take more than rock 'n' roll to get young Russians to vote. Opinion surveys show Russia's youth is the most politically apathetic segment of the population; one poll showed only 25% of all 18-to 24-year-olds plan to vote.

To counteract this, several U.S. companies doing business in Russia, including Mary Kay Cosmetics and Compaq Computers, are sponsoring a series of television specials modeled after MTV's "Rock the Vote." The aim is to educate young people on political issues and draw them into the process.

A major reason for voter turn-off, most observers agree, is a widespread perception among Russians of all ages that democratic politics, once seen as Russia's salvation, has become a smoke screen for high-level crime and corruption.

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