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Russia: Communists Poised For Strong Showing

As Russians prepared to go to the polls on Sunday in nationwide elections for the State Duma, frustration over the country's economic troubles is aiding the Communist Party's efforts to attract votes. RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky traveled last week to Russia's 'Red Belt' in search of an explanation for the party's support.

Tula, Russia; 20 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The scene had a decidedly Soviet feel to it as the Communist Party faithful filed into the palace of culture Thursday in the Russian city of Tula, some 200 kilometers south of the capital Moscow. Under the gaze of a huge portrait of party icon Lenin, the crowd, mostly seniors, settled into their seats.

It seemed like old times as many leafed through the latest Tula-edition of the party newspaper Pravda, waiting to hear party leader Gennady Zyuganov make one last appeal for their vote ahead of this weekend's parliamentary elections. As with the three previous parliamentary polls, the Communist Party is again expected to finish ahead of the rest of the country's political parties.

In Tula -- part of Russia's so-called "Red Belt" because of its unwavering support for the party -- the result is hardly in doubt.

Like other industrial urban centers across Russia, Tula has fallen on hard times since the collapse of communism. Its factories once churned out goods ranging from samovars to heat water for tea, to armaments to outfit the Soviet army. Today, many of those plants are either closed or have drastically reduced production. Unemployment now stands at more than ten percent in the city. Tula also suffers from the same depressing litany of social woes afflicting much of Russia's depressed industrial heartland, from rising illegal drug use to an alarming increase in AIDS cases.

Campaigning one last time before Sunday's vote, Zyuganov spelled out what is at stake in the election. "Today there are two choices. If you want it to continue like it is now, [where]the country has lost it's independence, has lost its heavy industry, go and vote for anyone from [extreme nationalist leader [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky to [the Unity bloc of [Sergei] Shoigu, [and Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin. It will be the old course, old politics. There won't be anything new, it will continue along the same path."

As Zyuganov was speaking in the palace of culture, further down Soviet Street 50-year-old Nina Mikhailovna Zabegena was busy handing out to passersby a newspaper published by the Union of Right Forces. A former building planner, who has had to make due with odd jobs here and there, she explains why she'll vote for the bloc led by former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, former privatization chief Anatoly Chubais, and one of Russia's first economic architects, Yegor Gaidar.

"They are young, energetic people, who are striving to lift up the economy in our country, and they know how to do that, at least I believe so."

Nearby, an unnamed pensioner, makes his dislike of the Union of Right Forces known.

"It is the party of destroyers. We are for the party of creators. (asked) Which party? (answers) It is the communists, it is the party of the army. There are other good parties too. But in no case.. Chubais is in that party, Gaidar stands behind them and others."

Further down Soviet Street stands the city's main department store. If a town's well being can be judged by how well its store shelves are stocked, then Tula is not well. The modest goods on display are reminiscent of Moscow shops eight or nine years ago.

Irina Persikova, who works in a store selling furniture, says she appreciates the new freedom brought by the end of communism ten years ago. At the same time, she acknowledges that many have suffered financial hardships. Maybe surprisingly, Persikova says she'll vote for the communists. She says that she says that they "could change things for the better."

Judging by the polls, and the frustrations and views of many like Persikova, the Communist Party seems positioned to perform well on Sunday.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.