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The BBC's Steven Rosenberg
"People here no longer believe politicans"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 15 December, 1999, 12:15 GMT
Russia's elections: Do the voters care?

Russians in Moscow Many have other worries: Soup handouts in Moscow

By Moscow Correspondent Paul Anderson

The elections to Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament, are the last before Russia chooses a president to succeed Boris Yeltsin after nearly ten years in power.

Russia at the Polls
What's at stake
Who's who
Russia's regions
If only for this reason, they are truly momentous. The vote on 19 December will shape the political landscape for the much bigger battle to be fought over the following six months.

But you would scarcely notice. Russia is a country fixated with two things. First, Chechnya. Second, the man dealing with it, the Prime Minister and President Yeltsin's chosen heir, Vladimir Putin.

Everything else barely gets a look in, even national elections which in their own right are hugely significant.

Moscow street Few believe the vote will bring much change
But Russians themselves do not see them as an opportunity for renewal and reinvention, as they have in the past. In a recent poll, 40 per cent of the electorate said they believed the elections would change nothing, against 29 per cent who said they would lead to change.

The rest - 31 per cent - said they weren't sure one way or the other. And probably they don't care.

People view the post-Communist institutions of power in the same way they viewed the Soviet institutions of power - as corrupt and self-serving. Why should the next Duma be any different?

After nearly ten years of economic misery who can blame them? But that overlooks several key questions raised by these elections.

New challenge to Communists

First, how much support will the Communist Party win? For the past four years, the Communists and their allies have dominated the Duma and in the process have spoiled the efforts of Russia's western-backed reformers.

The vote
State Duma has 450 seats
Half elected from constituencies by simple majority
Half by proportional representation
Voting on 19 Dec throughout Russia, except Chechnya
Now they face a new threat from the biggest and best organised party to burst onto the political scene for years - the Fatherland-All Russia Party, headed by the former prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov and Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov.

The opinion polls show the Communists still ahead, but Fatherland has already proved that it can eat into their support base. It is also eating into the support of the president, his administration and the political parties which support him - collectively known as the party of power.

In doing so, Fatherland is changing the system of patronage which has governed Russian politics since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and which had served Boris Yeltsin very nicely so far.

The power of Yeltsin

There is also the question of the constitution and the generous share of power it gives to the president. For years Boris Yeltsin's opponents have unsuccessfully been seeking to transfer power to the parliament, particularly over the appointment of the government.

Yeltsin Mr Yeltsin feels the heat at a recent European summit
Now they have more support from across the political parties and the next Duma may well be the one to push constitutional change through. For many politicians it would mark the start of a journey from a presidential republic to a parliamentary republic - one that is directly accountable to the people, not to the whims of an autocratic leader.

Boris Yeltsin isn't going to give up any of his power without a fight - but many analysts say this is one battle he won't and can't win.

Corruption allegations

Amid allegations of corruption which are closing in on the president and his family, Mr Yeltsin may be forced to accept a political deal which gives him and those in his entourage immunity from prosecution in return for constitutional amendments. The next Duma will be the body which negotiates that.

Ironically, two of the men most closely associated with the Yeltsin family and Kremlin high intrigue are standing for election to the Duma.

They are the billionaire financiers and oil tycoons, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. To many people involved in Russia's fast moving events, reinvention is the only means of survival.

Both men have reinvented themselves as would-be deputies, standing in remote and thinly populated polling districts in the south and far east.

They say they want to influence and promote market reform from the inside. But some commentators say all they want is immunity from prosecution, which the status of an elected deputy confers.

Finally, there is a run of important legislation to be passed in the next parliament, unfinished business from the previous Duma: on, among other things, land reform, the size and nature of the armed forces and privatisation.

Overshadowed by Chechnya

But all this has been eclipsed by Chechnya and the fight against the Islamic militants blamed for violent attacks earlier this year in which nearly three hundred people were killed.

Russian troops Russia's Chechen campaign gets plenty of favourable media coverage
Every day millions of Russian television viewers see the success of the operation against the "bandits" who, in the words of the presenters, have terrorised the nation for years.

In a re-run of Soviet military propaganda, they see pictures of smiling teenage conscripts off to deliver Russian justice and order.

When the news eventually turns to the elections, it is filled with extraordinarily vicious attacks on some of the candidates and the people behind them. Policy and political ideas are all but forgotten.

The vision of Russia in the new millennium is the restoration of strong rule. Anything else is a distraction.

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See also:
03 Dec 99 |  Europe
The doubts over Russia's democracy
13 Dec 99 |  Europe
Dirty tricks in Duma campaign

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