Russian factory town must juggle votes for its own interests and Yeltsin's

November 28, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

IZHEVSK, Russia -- The people who hold the power in this gun-making city have decided that ideology is a luxury they can't afford.

With elections to Russia's new two-house legislature in two weeks, it's time to get practical.

Izhevsk has big and important industries. They are all facing tough times, and the question for those in charge is simply this: Who will best serve their interests in Moscow?

That means: Who will have good relations with the administration of President Boris N. Yeltsin, and, more important, who can keep Moscow off the managers' backs?

Izhevsk makes cars and radio equipment, but its strongest tradition, going back 200 years, is in the manufacture of small arms. This is a city made by guns, from the precision Baikal hunting rifle to the Kalashnikov automatic rifle.

It's one of those featureless Russian cities where five-story apartment houses range up and down hillsides like giant gravestones. Inside them, the ceilings are low, the floors are concrete, and the hot water that was promised when they were '' built during the booming 1960s has yet to flow.

In other words, Izhevsk was a typical Communist Party stronghold of 600,000. But times have changed -- and that change was punctuated by the rattle of Kalashnikovs on the streets of Moscow Oct. 4.

When Mr. Yeltsin smashed hard-line lawmakers holed up in Russia's parliament building that day, he brought at least a temporary end to the sharp ideological debate over Russia's future.

Now the idea in cities like Izhevsk seems to be simply to get along in the new Russia, to prosper if possible.

On the road leading into town from the airport, where a billboard might once have glorified the worker, today there is a giant sign, in both Russian and English, proclaiming, "Welcome All Business Men to Izhevsk."

And, quietly, the association of factory directors here is lending its support to a centrist candidate with democratic credentials -- quietly, because backing even a centrist might stir the Yeltsin administration's wrath, which nobody in Izhevsk thinks is a good idea.

In the meantime, forget the Communists -- unless the ordinary working stiffs of Izhevsk defy their bosses and vote the old party in again. Which could just happen.

The factory directors were once an unchallengeable oligarchy here. They ran everything and were also keystones in the Communist Party hierarchy.

Today they still form an oligarchy, but not such a monolithic one. The party as they knew it is gone, and because business is bad they need to spend more time worrying about their factories. And their workers are free to have their own opinions.

"You can't deny their influence; they still have it," said Nikolai Saporzhnikov, one of seven candidates for Izhevsk's one seat in the new Russian Duma, or lower house.

"They're still respected, and some have good reputations. But because the old system was dismantled, they've been moved aside from the political decision-making process. And today people won't automatically vote for whomever their boss wants."

That's good for Mr. Saporzhnikov, because he's an outsider here -- he's head of the local Communist Party.

It's an ironic twist. He was 39 when he got that job, a perestroikaWunderkind with roots in industry, not ideology, and a mandate to sweep away the old musty ways.

Mr. Saporzhnikov's job was to clean up the party from the inside, but instead the party virtually collapsed around him. Today, at 44, he's still carrying the party's banner, but he says frankly that economic policy is not the issue anymore.

The Communists here are not attacking capitalism or private enterprise. They are campaigning against the Yeltsin government strictly on the grounds that it is illegitimate, because of the way it disbanded the old Supreme Soviet.

But that's not a theme that stirs much passion here. In fact, excitement over the election, and the accompanying referendum a new constitution, is barely visible.

There are no election posters, no sound trucks, no rallies, no factory tours.

The campaigning's all being done by television.

Half the members of the Duma will be elected by district, and half through proportional representation, as pure party candidates. Oneof the latter candidates here is Svetlana Kryukova, a former geologist who now writes for a local newspaper, and belongs to the democratic Russia's Choice bloc.

"Political life is only germinating here," she said. "But already people are disillusioned. With the elections in 1990, many had hoped that everything would change. And those hopes came to nothing. We have high prices, crime and so on. It's difficult to offer a program now, because nobody believes anybody anymore."

And, inevitably, each of the various factions is engaged in zTC serious infighting, which does little to attract voters.

Of the seven candidates for the Izhevsk district seat, two are democratic reformers. At least three -- four, depending on who's doing the analysis -- are from the Communist end of the spectrum, with two of those coming from the same party organization.

In other words, it's disorganized and confused.

"Well, it's a normal process," sighed Ms. Kryukova. "Anyway, it's not a tragedy."

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