Moscow, 7 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Voters go to the polls on Sunday in the Russian city of Tula for a high-profile parliamentary by-election dominated by big names, shady characters, lots of money and plenty of mud-slinging.
Aleksandr Korzhakov, President Yeltsin's former bodyguard, is widely considered the front-runner in a field of 11 colorful candidates vying for the State Duma seat vacated by former Security Council chief Aleksandr Lebed.
Korzhakov, who worked for more than a decade as Yeltsin's chief bodyguard, was sacked last June after the first round of the presidential elections. The military prosecutor's office has been conducting an investigation into allegations that Korzhakov ran a racketeering operation and stole government documents after he was dismissed. However, if Korzhakov wins, he will enjoy immunity from prosecution as a Duma deputy.
Other candidates include Nikolai Novikov, a local businessman imprisoned on charges of extortion, Anatoly Karpov, world chess champion , and Yelena Mavrodi, the wife of the disgraced organizer of the MMM pyramid scheme.
Mavrodi, a 27-year-old former model, is married to Sergei Mavrodi, who robbed thousands of their life savings after his pyramid scheme collapsed two years ago.
Mrs. Mavrodi has been accused of violating campaign laws by paying about 50 cents for each signature of support. She has also been accused of circumventing campaign finance laws. But the central electoral commission so far has not taken action against her.
Korzhakov too has been accused of running a corrupt campaign. Opponents complain that the local group of war veterans handed out vodka, tea and chocolate along with his picture in order to attract votes.
Korzhakov has denied the allegations and accused his opponents, including presidential chief of staff Anatoly Chubais, of orchestrating a smear campaign against him.
Ironically, in the eyes of some, Korzhakov is campaigning on an anti-corruption platform. He has pledged to help rid the Tula oblast of corruption by exposing the allegedly underhanded dealings of the region's governor, Nikolai Sevrugin, a member of the Our Home is Russia movement who has close ties with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
Observers say Korzhakov's populist rhetoric may help him win votes in Tula, an economically-depressed region south of Moscow. Campaigning as a military man, he also has pledged to support the region's struggling military industry.
His association with Aleksandr Lebed, who tops popularity polls in Russia, may help as well. Lebed gave his blessing to the campaign last fall by appearing with Korzhakov in Tula soon after he declared his candidacy.
But since then, Lebed has stayed on the sidelines and has not openly campaigned on his behalf. The Russian media have speculated that Lebed is considering running for governor of Tula this spring and therefore has been cautious about vocally supporting Korzhakov's controversial campaign.
Many observers say Korzhakov could pull off a victory for a number of reasons. For one, a simple majority is needed to win, which means there will be no run-off. In such a crowded electoral field, votes are likely to be spread out among various candidates, several of whom may split the communist and pro-reform vote.
Andrei Piontowsky, an analyst with the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL: "Korzhakov has a pretty good chance of winning, not because he's popular but because the electorate is absolutely indifferent. The most determined candidate will win."
According to most accounts, Korzhakov has displayed tireless determination and has recruited some of Russia's well-known pop stars to hold a series of concerts on his behalf.
The prospect of Korzhakov returning to political life in Moscow has caused a stir in the Russian media. He has threatened to expose compromising materials on Russia's political elite, but has so far provided no proof he has any such documents.