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Washington Post, November 8, 2003

Russia Enters Election Season Split Over Future of Capitalism

By Peter Baker

MOSCOW, Nov. 7 -- On the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Russia formally opened its parliamentary election season Friday amid a vigorous debate about the future of capitalism in this country in transition.

In simultaneous rallies across Moscow, the major parties vying for control of the lower house of parliament in the Dec. 7 elections offered sharply contrasting messages, variously flavored by the recent arrest of Russia's richest man.

Two market-oriented parties joined forces at a demonstration against the imprisonment of their mutual financier, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Just blocks away, however, larger throngs of Communist Party supporters gathered to mourn the Soviet Union while thousands of President Vladimir Putin's admirers rallied behind their leader in his fight against business moguls.

"Victory for our people!" shouted an announcer at a rock concert sponsored by Putin's political party, United Russia, next to St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square, where thousands of mostly young people danced and cheered. In giant letters above the concert stage were words of Putin's that his party has made a campaign slogan: "Together We Must Make Russia United, Strong."

That populist message, combined with Khodorkovsky's arrest, suggests Putin's appeal in the parliamentary contest: the implicit promise that he will end what is widely called oligarchic capitalism in favor of a new order more focused on the welfare of ordinary Russians.

At a party conference held separately from the rock concert, the head of United Russia stressed the importance of rebuilding the social safety net that unraveled with the Soviet Union. "Social expenditures are not a loss for the state but a farsighted investment," Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov told party leaders.

Putin's party has taken a lead in the latest polls, despite the legal campaign against Khodorkovsky and the subsequent fall in the value of the stock market. If anything, Putin may have bolstered his support among people who earn only $100 or $200 a month and have little sympathy for billionaires such as Khodorkovsky, according to polls.

United Russia had the support of 21 percent of those surveyed by the Public Opinion Foundation last weekend, while the Communists had 16 percent. The ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, had 6 percent, while the two pro-Western parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, were stuck at 4 percent each, below the minimum 5 percent threshold necessary to win party-list seats in the lower house, the State Duma.

Another poll, coinciding with Friday's 86th anniversary of the revolution that brought Vladimir Lenin to power, found that 42 percent of Russians would support or cooperate with the Bolsheviks if the revolt happened today, compared to just 10 percent who said they would fight them. The anniversary these days is officially celebrated as the Day of Accord and Reconciliation.

Fighting that tide, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces put aside their differences long enough on Friday to hold a pro-Khodorkovsky rally at Pushkin Square under a banner proclaiming "Freedom."

Nina Varvarina, 70, a retired mathematician, said she came to the demonstration because she feared that Putin was rebuilding the police state. "Inside the Kremlin you can hear the boots of small-time detectives such as Putin, and Russia deserves a better fate," she said.

Several in the crowd held up pictures of Khodorkovsky and embraced him as a new standard-bearer who should run against Putin in next March's presidential election. "The left-wing electorate should realize that the right wing has a leader now," said Pyotr Ivanov, 54, an unemployed software developer.

"He's clearly not an angel, but I think he's done a lot for the country," agreed Yevgeny Vrublevsky, 25, who works at a bank.

A few hundred yards away, the Agrarian Party, often allied with the Communists, held its own rally bemoaning what the last decade has wrought in Russia and expressed no sympathy for Khodorkovsky. "It doesn't relate to me," said Sima Nechayeva, a retired engineer who would not give her age.

The Agrarian Party supporters said they saw no threat to their liberty in the oligarch's arrest. "In my view, it's not important," said Valery Korgin, 45, a printer. "There's enough freedom, a lot of freedom."

The Khodorkovsky case appears to be dividing Europeans as well as Russians. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, on Thursday endorsed Putin's handling of the case during a joint news conference with Putin in Rome. But European Commission officials disavowed Berlusconi's comments on Friday, saying they were concerned about whether Russia was abusing the rule of law.

"We explained our position and what's happening," Putin retorted during a stop in Paris. "Those who wanted to hear and understand did hear and understand, and those who don't want to are useless to talk to."


See also:

the original at


Presidential Elections 2004

Elections to the State Duma, 2003

Washington Post, November 8, 2003

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