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Election Start: Star Appeal, Other People's Money, and the Spin

Last week President Vladimir Putin signed the degree that officially commenced the country's State Duma campaign, with elections to be held on December 7
For the past few weeks a number of parties started to flood the airways with political ads that were clearly more sophisticated than the last Duma campaign in 1999, but hardly any more convincing. While many in the political elite have promised an active, interesting, and "honest" campaign, there is little reason to believe that the outcome of this parliamentary election will significantly differ from the last.

The five parties who passed the 5% threshold, by use of "party lists", in the last Duma election bid are the ones who have any meaningful hope of finding themselves in the newly formed parliament. These parties include the Communists, pro-Kremlin "centrists" (now under the umbrella called United Russia), Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats', Grigori Yavlinsky's "Yabloko," and Boris Nemtsov’s Union of Right Forces (SPS). Three of these five ­ the Communists, Yabloko and Union of Right Forces have already finalized their party lists.

To date, at least two common factors all the front-running parties are pursuing include the following. First, finding the right "troika" of leaders on each party list appears to be of great importance. The first slot always goes to the leader of the party. There has never been any doubt that Zyuganov would lead the Communists, Gryzlov for United Russia, Nemtsov for the Union of Right Forces, and Zhirinovsky for the Liberal Democrats. The number two and three spots have, however, been hotly debated for some of the parties. A name catcher is highly sought. Until recently, Nobel prize-winning scientist Zhores Alferov for the communists, and popular TV anchor Svetlana Sorokina for Yabloko were courted, though both declined to join a troika. 

The Communists, not able to secure Alferov's place on its electoral list, settled upon former governor of Krasnodar Krai Nikolai Kondratenko, slated just behind Zyuganov and notorious for his public anti-Semitic remarks. It would appear that the Communists define a person who has a catchy name, or is a celebrity of some sort, slightly different from their opponents. One has to wonder if anti-Semitism is how the Communists define an active, interesting, and "honest" campaign.

This week also witnessed the finalization of the Union of Right Forces election list led by Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada and the Russia’s "most hated man" UES CEO Anatoly Chubais. The SPS vigorously attempted to play down Chubais' "notorious celebrity", instead stressing his role in forming the party. Indeed, Chubais may be Russia’s most hated person, but the majority of the electorate would probably not deny that Chubais' name is associated with "can do" and "results." Clearly this is the SPS' gambit of having him in the troika list.  The spin being: you can hate him (even with good reason), but he does, in the end, make an impact on anything he sets his mind to. 

The second common factor that encompasses at least two leading parties includes another issue. While the same array of parties that are currently sitting in the Duma are expected to find themselves in the next parliament, there is an important difference. That difference is "Yukos-Khordorkovsky-money." Yabloko, it is widely believed, is heavily dependent on Yukos' financial support. The Yukos-Yabloko candidates are Konstantin Kagalovsky and Galina Antonova.

Kagalovsky and Antonova do not stand out all that much on Yabloko’s list of candidates. Finding Sergei Muravlenko and Aleksei Kondaurov in the Communist's list is far more interesting and politically intriguing. Muravlenko was the general manager of Yukos before Khodorkovsky and his cadre acquired the company (though it was disclosed last year that he is named as a beneficial owner of Yukos in Menatep's Gibraltar structure, thus suggesting that he is extremely wealthy). Kondaurov, at present, is an analyst at Yukos' Moscow headquarters. Are both included on the Communist party list due to loyalty to the party irrespective of wealth and the interests of their employer? Much has been made of this and no doubt will continue to make the headlines. Certainly some of members of the security forces have taken a strong interest in the Yukos-Communist Party connection. 

The election campaign has begun. However, there is little indication that that much has changed since the last Duma election. None of the parties have a clear campaign platform that speaks to the average voter. The Communists have opted to co-opt a known anti-Semite to enhance their election fortunes. SPS is angling on the hope that a hated politician-turn businessman/bureaucrat-turned-politician will safe their bacon. The Communists and SPS have already shown their weaknesses, there is no reasons believe that the other leading parties will act any differently. This is to be expected, politics in a normative sense cannot be found in the realm occupied by political parties. Politics is found elsewhere.

A good of example of where politics can be found is Gleb Pavlovsky's (unsolicited?) report titled "On the negative consequences of the summer assault by the minority opposed to the president's agenda" and delivered to Head of the Presidential Administration Alexander Volohsin (and anyone in the media who would read it). The report caused quite a stir among the political elite. It is the writer’s opinion spin-doctors like Pavlovsky write reports to created news, then later to be analyzed, creating more spin-doctoring. Interestingly enough, not one of Russia’s political parties appear capable interpreting Russian politics that can capture the attention - let alone the imagination - of the electorate.

To date, the parties that will more likely make-up the next Duma have only served up a 'beauty contest.'  As far Khodorkovsky’s money goes; well it appears that some politicians have been paid though it is unclear if they have been bought. In meantime, the political elite continues to talk to itself as if the elections were some kind ritual that hopefully become amusing. One has to wonder if the real candidates in this election are the spin-doctors and their handlers.

Peter Lavelle.