Page last updated at 14:00 GMT, Friday, 30 November 2007

No room at the Duma

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News, Yekaterinburg

Yevgeny Roizman has been many things - businessman and anti-drugs campaigner, art expert and champion off-road racer.

He has also been that rare phenomenon - a genuine constituency MP in Russia's parliament.

Yevgeny Roizman
I am a deputy, not a diplomat
Yevgeny Roizman

They are counting the hours on Belinsky Street before he must surrender his seat under a new party-based election law which effectively bars independent candidates from standing for the State Duma.

Still the people come up the stairs of his surgery, an old house wedged between Yekaterinburg's high-rises, expecting their local MP to help even now.

A phone is rarely out of his hand. The boom of his voice rings out into the corridor.

Time-wasters get short shrift. But those whose cases are genuine can expect every respect, their cases discussed in hushed tones.

One mother is anxious about her son, just out of prison, falling into bad company again. Another woman believes there is a heroin factory in her block of flats.

A neighbouring room hums with conversation as a team of volunteer lawyers gives constituents free advice.

And the inbox of Russia's most famous blogger-MP is silently filling with new appeals for help from all over Russia.

Thanks to the internet - the national broadcast media all but ignore him - Yevgeny Roizman is, in a sense, local MP to the whole country.

Representing the people

His first loyalty however is to his city, the capital of Russian heavy industry, which is still known by many under its Soviet name, Sverdlovsk.

Yevgeny Roizman and his assistant see a constituent at the MP's surgery in Yekaterinburg
Just days from the election the constituents keep coming in

"My main achievement was to show people that when I became a deputy I didn't move to Moscow, I didn't start making money, I saw my voters from the first day to the last," he tells the BBC News website.

"I was an intermediary between the people and the government, I feared nobody. My greatest achievement was that my voters were never ashamed of me."

Mr Roizman is under no illusion about the power of a "pocket parliament" in a country where the president rules supreme.

But he insists that "any deputy who is willing to use his resources honestly can achieve a great deal".

Anti-drugs campaign

In his own case, a major part of that achievement has been to keep alive a campaign to rid his city of the scourge of heroin.

"Very simply, we had a drug disaster here," he says, thinking back to 1999 when he co-led a mass protest against the pushers.

"Ambulances were picking up bodies [of addicts] off the side of the road," he recalls.

The MP's surgery in central Yekaterinburg
The MP's surgery: A small pre-Revolution house in Yekaterinburg

Drugs were flowing in from ex-Soviet Central Asia, a new transit route for Afghan heroin, and two of Yekaterinburg's ethnic minorities figured prominently among the couriers and dealers arrested.

Mr Roizman is still bitter about the accusation levelled at him by some that the Drug-Free City drive was driven by racist motives.

"Only the Tajiks and Roma who deal in drugs accuse me of discrimination - I have good relations with the ones who don't deal," says.

"I am Jewish. I was born and brought up here. We have never had ethnic conflicts in our city."

Party invitation

On the wall above the MP's desk hangs a portrait of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and a Cossack sabre presented as a gift.

Recovering heroin addict Ilya
Heroin addict Ilya is being treated in a Drug-Free City facility

Yevgeny Roizman is not easy to categorise and all deputies in the new Duma must be neatly categorised by party under the new electoral system.

Golos, the independent Russian election monitor, has found that under the previous, mixed voting system, voters usually knew who their MP was only if he or she was elected in a single-seat constituency like that of Mr Roizman.

"The party lists for this upcoming election are highly de-regionalised," Golos campaigner Tatyana Bogdanova told the BBC News website.

"The people who head the regional party lists quite commonly have very little connection to the region, or no connection at all."

An official of President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party in Yekaterinburg, who did not want to be named, told the BBC the new party-list system was aimed at excluding populists and avoiding the chaos of having too many parties.

He singled out the UK as an example of the kind of "two-party" system Russia aspired to, and seemed slightly taken aback to hear that British MPs are elected in first-past-the-post constituency votes.

His advice for independent MPs in the outgoing parliament was to approach one of the registered parties and apply to join their list "not necessarily as a member, but a supporter".

Following a logic which appeared ever more surreal, he pointed out that Mr Putin himself was not an actual member of United Russia, yet was heading the party's electoral list.

Mr Roizman has no plans to join a party any time soon and it is arguable whether his abrasive character would make him welcome in any case.

"Ya deputat, nye diplomat [I am a deputy, not a diplomat]," he says in his take-it-or-leave-it manner.

After Sunday, he will be neither.

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