The recent arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the now-former head of the Yukos oil giant, has driven home the predominant theme of the 2003 Duma elections: the fate of the oligarchs and their riches. Focusing a political spotlight on social inequality should hardly be surprising in a country where most people are mired in poverty. But the sudden interest in social issues springs from an unlikely source -- the Kremlin-backed Unified Russia party.
Moscow, 3 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the past, social equality was a political issue left largely to the Communists. But since the October arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the divide between Russia's haves and have-nots has become the issue of choice for all of the parties seeking a share of the seats in this weekend's Duma (lower house) elections -- including the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, which is widely expected to sweep the vote.
Robert Barry is the deputy head of the election monitoring mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which will be overseeing the 7 December vote. He summed up the race by saying: "It has not been a campaign where issues have been very widely discussed. It has largely been a campaign about personalities, and the nature of Unified Russia, and that it represents the party in power. I think one of the main issues has been the issue of oligarchs and Khodorkovskii and how that plays out with the population at large."
Under President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has taken pains to distance itself from the clan of oligarchs who gained instant fortune in the privatization schemes of the mid-1990s.
To that end, says Dmitrii Orlov of the Center for Political Technologies, Unified Russia has campaigned on promises of higher salaries and pension increases -- stressing social issues without mentioning the oligarchs directly.
"They present it in the following way: that Unified Russia, through its managers and active members, is already solving these problems. As for opposition parties -- especially those that have entered the political arena recently, like the Motherland bloc -- the anti-oligarch theme comes through a lot louder," Orlov said.
With two cabinet ministers and 29 regional governors on its list, Unified Russia stresses its image as a party of action rather than talk. It credits itself with pushing through the Duma votes raising the minimum salary and granting wage and salary hikes to government employees. Its campaign rhetoric is based on promises to ensure that all Russians are "cared for."
Yurii Levada, head of the VTsIOM-A polling organization, says it's a stance that reflects the mood of many voters. "The main thing for people is that they receive a salary, that the prices aren't too high, that there's order and not too much unemployment," he said. "People are afraid of upheaval; they don't want it. So even an issue like the 'take everything and share it' distribution [of wealth] doesn't attract [voters]."
Social inequity has been a key issue among the democratic opposition as well, with both Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces urging measures to rectify some of the extremes of the privatization era. Vladimir Zhirinovskii, the head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), has jumped on the bandwagon as well, campaigning under the slogan "We're for the poor -- we're for Russians."
The Communists, watching their pet issue embraced by nearly every party in the race, have accused Unified Russia of treading on their traditional turf for political gain. Dmitrii Orlov says it is simply a matter of seizing on the top political issue of the season. "The Kremlin and Unified Russia had to bring it out because otherwise the Communist Party would have jumped on it," he said. "The Communists and Yabloko also came out with anti-oligarch themes. The party of power just had to run ahead of the locomotive, otherwise it would have shown that it doesn't react to public opinion. Putin simply intercepted the demands of the opposition."
Unified Russia's strategy appears to be succeeding. Polls show its numbers rising as the Communists' drop. This has raised a wave of outcry from the political opposition, which has accused the Kremlin's party of unfairly exploiting its influence and resources. Putin has been interviewed on state television, voicing his support for the party. Other programs have cast opponents in a blatantly negative light.
Opposition party members are particularly frustrated by Unified Russia's refusal to participate in televised debates. Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov in a recent speech defended his own standing and called on Unified Russia to test its political mettle on the debate floor, candidate to candidate.
"There were about 40 stories [on television] against us -- all dirty, all dishonest. Where is my [alleged] hotel in Cuba? Show me an address and a picture. I ask you to show me my wood-cutting factory in Jordan. I'd like to remind you that there are no forests there. I once more demand that Unified [Russia] confront me directly, for an hour on live television, to hold a debate on key important issues," Zyuganov said.
Other social issues have worked their way into the campaign season. Many candidates have expressed concern over Russia's housing-utilities crisis, which at times has left tens of thousands of Russians without water, heat, or electricity. Military reform and environmental themes have also been discussed. The ongoing war in Chechnya, meanwhile, has gone virtually ignored.
(Part 3 on the Duma elections takes a look at the overall significance of the elections.)