| Russia goes to the polls on Dec. 7 to elect a new parliament
-- or Duma --
just three months before President Vladimir V. Putin himself stands for
reelection. One notable feature of the current campaign is the role being
played by Russian business, which is spending big money financing and
Some say that's healthy for Russian democracy, creating a counterweight
the power wielded by the Kremlin, but others worry that the influence
big business has gone too far. The role of business in the elections has
become a hot issue since the Oct. 25 arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former
chairman of oil company Yukos, and Russia's richest business tycoon.
Although Khodorkovsky has been charged with tax evasion, many suspect
really being punished for his political activities.
Grigory Yavlinsky, leader
of the opposition Yabloko Party, talked to BusinessWeek Moscow Correspondent
Jason Bushi about the forthcoming elections and the role played by big
business in Russian politics. Yabloko, a liberal party noted for its concern
with democracy and human rights, was one of the parties being funded by
Khodorkovsky. The coming elections will pit Yabloko against a range of
parties, among them the main pro-Kremlin party United Russia, as well
as other opposition parties, including the Communist Party. Edited excerpts
of their conversation follow:
Question: What makes these elections important for Russia?
Grigory Yavlinsky: These elections can show some important political
trends: to what extent people support the bureaucratic structure, such
as United Russia [the main pro-Kremlin party]. The elections will show
to what extent people support the nationalistic wing, and to what extent
they support the liberal forces.
For example, you have the Police Minister [Russia's Interior Minister,
Boris Gryzlov] as the head of United Russia. You have an extreme
nationalist as a leader of the Communists -- their No. 2, Mr. Kondratenko...
You have my party, a liberal democratic party. We have a leader of the
Petersburg group, Mr. Kovalev, who is a world-famous human-rights
[activist] who was in prison in Soviet times. Whatever happens will send
very clear message.
Question: And if people vote in a similar way to last time
-- United Russia comes first and Yabloko only gets 5% to 6% of the vote
-- should we be pessimistic that Russia will never change?
Grigory Yavlinsky: If things happen like in previous elections then we
optimistic.... I would be encouraged that things will not get worse. In
Russia today, if things do not get worse, then it's great. No news is
Question: Business is playing a big role in these elections,
financing parties and sponsoring candidates. What is it that makes these
elections important for business?
Grigory Yavlinsky: In the mid-90s, a system was created in Russia that
"peripheral capitalism." Now, this system is getting stronger.
major features of this system are that there is no independent justice
all; a 100% merger between business and the authorities. Such a system
always gives business an incentive to be in the Duma and in the
government. This system is a lame duck and it can't create a modern
competitive market. It can only create a peripheral system, or, as the
Russian people call it, "bandit capitalism."
Question: The role business has played in financing the
elections has received a lot of attention in recent months, especially
with the Yukos case, which some people have linked to Yukos' funding of
political parties, including Yabloko. What do you say?
Grigory Yavlinsky: Yukos was substantially supporting Yabloko since April,
2002. But Yukos
was not influencing our voting decisions. Khodorkovsky was supporting
Yabloko as a democratic project, as something to support civil society
Russia. That's very easy to see if you look at our votes in the Duma.
You'll see there was no special political influence from Yukos on the
of Yabloko. Very possibly they have influence on the votes of the
Communists, but not on Yabloko.
Question: In general, do you see a risk of business buying
the political process, given that it's so crucial to party financing?
Grigory Yavlinsky: Yes, but this is a problem of the system. There is
financing political parties. And this is wrong. It would be a very
Question: What kind of regulations do you think Russia needs?
Grigory Yavlinsky: For example, if every voter voting for my party gave
dollar a year,
that would be perfectly OK for me. It's easy to put into legislation,
saying each party can get from the budget an amount proportional to the
number of their votes. It's much better than relying on tycoons.
Question: Has Yukos entirely stopped funding Yabloko now?
Grigory Yavlinsky: After what happened with Khodorkovsky, yes.
Question: Do you think funding by other businesses has similar
Grigory Yavlinsky: I can talk only about my own party. I was always
attempting to resist
any attempt for political influence from any oligarch. I've been trying
create a political party. Tycoons always want to have political influence.
Question: If one looks at the way the Duma works today and
the way legislation is discussed, how big an influence does big business
have on those decisions?
Grigory Yavlinsky: Politically, it doesn't. But in the economic area --
-- it has been very influential.
Question: And were the methods legal? Or are we talking
about corruption of Parliament?
Grigory Yavlinsky: There is no law about lobbying. There are no legal
Question: The picture you painted at the beginning, when
you said if nothing gets worse that's good news, actually sounds very
pessimistic, very bleak.
Grigory Yavlinsky: It's not pessimistic. Maybe, if you think that Russia
this comparison is not right. Russia is not Switzerland. In the current
situation, it's not a pessimistic scenario for Russia. It's certainly
necessary to do a lot of positive things, but they can't be done at the
moment. They can be done only after the Presidential election -- if the
President is prepared to move in this direction.
Question: And do you believe he will be?
Grigory Yavlinsky: That's a good question.
State Duma elections