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Russia: Duma Elections -- Unified Russia Says, 'Turn Out The Lights, The Party's Over' (Part 1)

The finish line is in sight for the 23 political parties vying for seats in Russia's State Duma. Half of the 450 seats will go to deputies elected on party lists. The other half will go to deputies elected in single-mandate districts. The campaign has been dominated by the Kremlin-endorsed Unified Russia party, which has made the most of its access to state-controlled institutions, especially the broadcast media. In the first of a three-part series on the elections, RFE/RL looks at how parties are adapting their campaign tactics to the new political landscape.

Moscow, 2 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On 28 November, state television aired an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he explained why he supports Unified Russia, the pro-Kremlin party that dominates the State Duma.

The interview exemplifies Unified Russia's easy access to the media, just one of the challenges facing the other parties in upcoming 7 December parliamentary elections. Indeed, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which will monitor the vote, has expressed its concern over what it calls the "unequal campaign opportunities" in Russia, noting that it has verified instances of Unified Russia using administrative resources in its campaign.

Such a formidable opponent has forced some opposition parties to adapt their campaign tactics to get their messages across to voters. Daniil Meshcheryakov is head of the election team for Yabloko, Russia's oldest democratic opposition party. Because it can't compete with Unified Russia on the airwaves, Yabloko says it is focusing more on a grassroots campaign.

"It's the first time we have conducted such a campaign, and it's difficult for us," Meshcheryakov told RFE/RL. "We have these so-called field headquarters in 330 towns -- most of the towns have more than 50,000 people -- where we have operations handing out leaflets and picketing. It's quite complicated to organize, but it's the only thing. There are two ways of speaking to [the voters]: either television -- but we already talked about that -- or handing out leaflets."

In central Moscow, the Yabloko campaign workers are hard to miss -- pensioners and students hand out leaflets, their oversized T-shirts pulled over their thick coats, with many wearing scarves and two hats to resist the icy rain.

Meshcheryakov says Yabloko's campaign has been noteworthy for its efforts to appeal to different sectors of the party's base. In addition to its traditional supporters -- the Soviet intelligentsia, who are dwindling in numbers -- Yabloko is trying to appeal to new supporters attracted to the party for other reasons.

"They're mostly socially oriented voters who are very critical of the reforms, to the way in which the reforms were implemented over the past 10 years. They're of social-democratic orientation who used to vote for the Communists. They're left-wing. We have a different campaign for them that focuses more on such things as our fight against poverty," Meshcheryakov said.

The present State Duma has a floating pro-Kremlin majority of roughly 210 seats, 145 of which belong to Unified Russia and about 65 seats to more or less allied factions. The opposition is represented by the Communists, who have 110 seats; the Union of Rightist Forces, with 31 seats; and Yabloko, with 17 seats. Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic party (LDPR) holds 14 seats.

Observers say Unified Russia could end up with about 285 seats in the next Duma -- 100 of these in single-mandate districts. The Communists are expected to be the second-largest party in the Duma, but with significantly fewer seats than the party enjoys now. While the LDPR is expected to make it over the 5 percent threshold, Yabloko and the other democratic opposition group, the Union of Rightist Forces, are hovering dangerously close and might not get in.

If parties do not make it into the Duma, they cannot run independently in local elections. Putting forward presidential candidates also becomes more complicated.

For this reason, Yabloko and other parties are choosing to downplay their positions on controversial issues, such as the war in Chechnya. Meshcheryakov tried to explain, but appeared embarrassed: "That theme is closed for debate. It is not discussed during debates or other programs. There's just no discussion on that theme. It's completely silenced. So coming out and shouting about Chechnya [looks] like a provocation. We could bring it up, but it's very difficult to do."

Vladimir Ryzhkov is running as an independent candidate in a single-mandate district in Barnaul, the capital of the Siberian district of Altai. He agrees that voters are focusing on concrete problems and not on principles. He says his campaign advertisement stresses this point. "[In the ad,] I walk around in Barnaul," he said. "It's in August, so it's still summer, and I just say one phrase: 'I'm going to the Duma to finish what I started.' Then a voice says, 'Vladimir Ryzhkov works for you.' That's all. That's my campaign slogan."

Political parties in Russia are now allowed to spend considerably more on election campaigns than in the past -- about 240 million rubles, or about $8 million.

Yabloko says funding from former Yukos oil boss Mikhail Khodorkovskii, its main backer, has dried up since his arrest in October. It's a tough blow, since Khodorkovskii's contributions covered about half of the party's expenses.

Ryzhkov says the increase in the spending cap has had the effect of reducing the number of candidates. "A newcomer who doesn't have any money," Ryzhkov lamented, "can't get elected."

Communist Yurii Petriakov told RFE/RL last week that the party is living from hand to mouth. "Our expenditures so far have totaled 50 million rubles. Unified Russia spent 230 million rubles, so they still have a 10 million rubles to go. We have 190 million rubles to go, but we don't have that kind of money," he said. "Today, we have zero." But he added that the party expects to receive some funds from private citizens.

The Communists say they have given up on billboards, which they believe are ineffective, and are investing their money in television ads instead. In one such ad, a rapper sings about being poor and having no future and how the Communists are the only ones who can help.

Similar to Yabloko's strategy, the Communists say they are trying to circumvent Unified Russia's overwhelming strength through door-to-door campaigning. "It's our main way of working, especially considering the financial difficulties and the information blockade that the party of power has unleashed against us," Petriakov said. "So we've mainly been working with our activities that we have in practically every suburb of every town. So we're making the best of the big advantage we have -- our structure -- and that distinguishes us from other parties."

Petriakov relates a story he says is typical of the struggles the Communists have faced in the campaign. Ten days ago, he says, Communist leader Genadii Zyuganov and Duma candidate Lyudmila Savitskaya, Russia's first female cosmonaut, were due to meet with voters in a local cinema in Pushkino, a town near Moscow.

"They walked into a dark room, a cold room, that wasn't linked to a loudspeaker system, because the technicians had been sent home by the town's administration. So the meeting was almost canceled," Petriakov said. "But [since] we're experienced people and prepare for such 'misunderstandings,' we've learned to take everything along -- a loudspeaker system, as well as people who know how to switch the lights back on."

(Part 2 looks at the main issues of the campaign and what they say about Russia's political future. Part 3 discusses the overall significance of the Russian elections.)