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Russia: Grass Roots in a New Democratic Lawn Named Leningrad

  • Brian Whitmore

St. Petersburg, 27 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Vadim Gustov, the main challenger in the race to unseat Leningrad Oblast Governor Alexander Belyakov, has built a grass-roots political machine so successful that in some villages, voters who don't even know the sitting governor know Gustov.

Telephone polls taken two weeks ago showed Belyakov with a commanding 38-percentage-point lead over second-place Gustov in the field of nine candidates. But telephone polls are notorious in Russia for under-reporting the vote in rural regions.

A two-day tour of the oblast's villages this week by our correspondent found few telephones, but plenty of Gustov campaign literature often bearing the hammer and sickle of the Communist Party that has backed him.

"Gustov is the only candidate I have heard of. His campaign leaflets are in our store and our village," said a woman selling mushrooms in the village of Vartemyak, about 25 km from St. Petersburg.

She refused to give her name, but added that she did not know the name of the current oblast governor, and had voted in Russia's presidential election for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Cowherder Antonina Porolna said much the same in the village of Luppolova, about 20 km from St. Petersburg. She added: "I've also heard of that one Belyayev or Belyakov or whatever his name is."

In contrast to Belyakov, who has rarely ventured into oblast's hinterlands during the campaign except through the television airwaves, Gustov has set off on a dizzying sprint, often stopping in three towns a day to meet voters in factories, military bases and collective farms.

He tries to evoke the image of Vladimir Yakovlev, the newly elected governor of St Petersburg, who came from behind to unseat incumbent Anatoly Sobchak by portraying himself as a can-do manager.

Gustov also portrays himself as a manager. But he lacks the fondness for hard-hats, leather jackets and rolled-up sleeves that became the trademarks of Yakovlev's gubernatorial campaign; Gustov rarely takes off his Soviet-style gray suit-coat.

And he tries to have it both ways on the issue of Communist Party support, accepting the help of volunteers, while insisting he is a political independent who favors the free market.

A Gustov campaign stop at the Antropshkinkaya Factory provided a perfect view of the contradictions of his candidacy. He began: "Dear Comrades," before launching into a speech blasting the Belyakov administration.

The candidate's personal attention was not lost on the factory workers, some of whom noted pointedly that incumbent Belyakov had never visited. Meanwhile, Belyakov has shuttled back and forth between St. Petersburg and Moscow, where he has met with Kremlin officials and courted their support.

Last Sunday, while Gustov was on the campaign trail in Gatchina, Vsyevolozhek and Kasimovo, the governor appeared in a ceremony with St. Petersburg Governor Yakovlev to sign an agreement on the unification of the city and the oblast by the year 2000. Such statesmanlike gestures have helped Belyakov dominate the television airwaves.

Wednesday Belyakov appeared on state-owned Russian Television, which, like all national TV stations, openly backed President Boris Yeltsin in his successful campaign against Communist Gennadi Zyuganov. Belyakov and two other incumbent governors, from Kaliningrad and Chita, got gentle treatment: a mix of polite questions and glowing praise from the moderating journalist.