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Russia: Country Kicks Off Parliamentary Campaign Season With Music, Drinks, And Memories

  • Sophie Lambroschini

On 7 November, Russia's political parties entered the heart of campaign season with the tart of debates and televised political advertisements. The launch coincided with a traditional holiday, the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution -- now called the Day of Reconciliation and Accord -- and political parties took advantage of the celebrations to hold their first pre-electoral meetings.

Moscow, 10 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's pro-democracy Yabloko party chose the Beatles' song "Here Comes the Sun" for their political meeting near Pushkin Square in central Moscow kicking off the campaign season ahead of December's parliamentary elections.

The Beatles seemed an optimistic choice, considering the somewhat solemn message that followed. Opposition activist Aleksandr Zakharov, who opened the meeting, said Russia is standing at a crossroads, much as it was 86 years ago during the 1917 October Revolution. "Today we are here because once again there is the danger of arbitrary terror on the part of the authorities," he said.

An apple-green Yabloko poster carried the words "Freedom, Russia, Yabloko." The crowd of some 200 supporters also carried signs with slogans like "For civil control over the secret services." The signs reflect what Yabloko says is a growing threat of totalitarianism.

Party leader Grigorii Yavlinskii warned that any sense of democracy promoted by the government of President Vladimir Putin is deceptive and false. "We feel that the freedom that we got in the early 1990s is shrinking, that our democracy is just turning into a Potemkin village," Yavlinskii said.

A few people were waving flags bearing the emblem of Russia's No. 1 oil producer Yukos, in support of the company's jailed chief and Yabloko financier Mikhail Khodorkovskii.

The meeting marked one of the first times that Russia's democratic opposition united for a pre-electoral event. Traditionally Yabloko, which stresses civic rights, and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), which focuses more on private property, have failed to bridge their political divide. But at the 7 November meeting, politicians from both parties were present.

With both parties' popularity ratings hovering around the 5 percent hurdle, neither is certain to enter the Duma in elections next month. Over the past years, a coalition of opposition movements was often urged as a way to strengthen the antiestablishment camp, but it has never been achieved.

SPS leader Boris Nemtsov spoke out in favor of greater cooperation. "If we will be divided, we will be squashed," Nemtsov said. "If we don't come to an agreement, we will be destroyed. If we will be apart, there won't be a free and democratic Russia."

A group of 20-year-old students wearing blue windbreakers bearing the logo of the Union of Rightist Forces said they decided to join SPS after party representatives came to their institute a few months ago and explained the party's plans for a professional army that wouldn't send untrained soldiers to Chechnya.

A couple of kilometers away, on Lubyanka Square, in front of the former KGB headquarters -- now home to its successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB) -- the Communists set up a giant stage and television screen.

Except for Unified Russia, the party behind President Vladimir Putin, the Communists are the only ones that are certain to get into the Duma. The latest poll gives them 23 percent of the vote against 30 for the Kremlin's party.

The party's message has changed little over the years: a giant poster called for "power to the Soviets, bread for the people, work for the workers, peace for the people."

A handful of supporters even dressed up like Red Army soldiers with the characteristic gray felt hat and red star. Others wore big red ribbons in their lapels.

The meeting began with the Soviet anthem. Many men took off their hats and sang along -- but not everyone remembered the words.

In a break with tradition, party leader Gennadii Zyuganov even brought God into the Communist campaign, thanking him for the unusually bright and sunny weather.

"Dear comrades, even the Almighty shows solidarity with the great [Red] October: there hasn't been such weather in Moscow on this day for a long time, the day where all honest citizens of the planet and our country, link their destiny with the ideas of October," Zyuganov said.

A special guest was on hand at the Communist rally -- Aleide Guevara March, the daughter of legendary Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara. Speaking in Russian, she announced to the crowd that she had come to "congratulate the Soviet people" on the 86th anniversary of the October Revolution.

"On such a day, humanity started to live a new life. All the people of the world are grateful to the Russian people for this opportunity. It is extremely important to continue what you began," she said.

Away from the stage, Andrei, a 26-year-old self-proclaimed Communist, discreetly pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker Scotch whiskey to refill his plastic cup. Andrei said he votes for the Communists because they're the only ones that "will really share the country's riches with the people."

By far the most large-scale event was organized by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia. It held a conference attended by members including cabinet ministers such as Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, No. 1 on Unified Russia's party list. The party also held a pop concert by the Kremlin walls.

At the conference, Gryzlov -- a stiff, graying, state functionary with a thin moustache -- explained why his party has refused to participate in televised political debates.

"We don't have anyone to debate with, and nothing to debate about," Gryzlov said. "Who can speak out against the key missions set by the president, and that our party is ready to make happen -- overcoming massive poverty, promoting economic growth, a strong army? We decided to discuss our plans directly with those for whom we work -- the people."

At the pop concert, attended by hundreds of teenagers -- many too young to vote -- singer Larissa Dolina switched from syrupy love songs to a patriotic one. "Only you and I, only we together can make [Russia] the most beautiful in the world. Not only for us, for the whole world. For a strong united Russia!"

Asked if they came for Putin and Unified Russia, a group of teenage girls just giggled their support and blushed until one of them found some courage after taking a swig from a beer bottle.

"We're for Putin -- say why you're for Putin, Lena. We don't have to be ashamed of him, he looks respectable, he doesn't do any harm."

Onstage, a dozen dancers in orange workers' helmets climbed up and down ladders, "building" a giant "Russia" made of cardboard bricks.
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