Crucial vote looming for tired Russia

December 05, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MURMANSK, Russia -- Russia's political leaders are asking a disillusioned people to give them one more chance to create a post-Communist nation.

But with crucial elections only a week away, few voters appear ready to make a great leap of faith into the future. Most are approaching next Sunday's vote with more weary resignation than partisan fervor.

Yet the stakes are enormous. President Boris N. Yeltsin is asking Russia to elect a new parliament and to approve a new constitution. The results could immeasurably strengthen Mr. Yeltsin or irreparably damage him; they could lead to peaceful evolution of democratic institutions or complete chaos -- and anything in between.

Here in Murmansk, a region of 1.5 million people about 1,300 miles north of Moscow, all the vagaries that can bedevil a president trying to create a new nation and a new political process are at work.

Moscow seems remote, as it does from many cities in this enormous country. Yet Moscow once controlled every detail of life. Murmansk was organized around defense and socialism, as was the nation. Workers here mine nickel for the defense ministry; they repair ships for the Northern Fleet; and they extract minerals for use in fertilizers for the government's huge farms.

Murmansk, with its port on the Barents Sea, is important to President Yeltsin. And it is deeply troublesome for him. At one military ship repair yard here, 6,000 angry workers who haven't been paid regularly since September are threatening to lead an intense anti-Yeltsin campaign before the election if they ren't paid in the next day or so.

Mr. Yeltsin's personal representative here, Ivan I. Menshikov, says the gravity of the political situation at Factory No. 35, as it is known locally, can't be overestimated.

"You have 6,000 people there with relatives and friends," he said. "Like panic, this anti-government feeling could spread with very high speed."

Even those not working for the defense industry itself are feeling economic distress in Murmansk, as is most of Russia.

"We have heating oil left for four days," Mr. Menshikov said at the end of last week.

"The electric company tried to turn off electricity to some businesses for lack of payment, and some military men offered to defend the enterprises.

"Because we couldn't afford the fodder, we had to slaughter 6,000 of our 18,000 dairy cows not long ago.

"These are the most difficult parts of the economy, and they make the Dec. 12 election very dangerous."

The opposition parties have seized on the nation's economic collapse as a natural point of attack.

"They are accusing the government of losing the North," Mr. Menshikov said, "and they say the democrats broke up the Russian Federation and destroyed the economy."

Mr. Yeltsin is associated with the Russia's Choice party led by Yegor T. Gaidar, his economic adviser. It is one of 13 parties competing in the election.

A Russian television poll last week showed Russia's Choice well ahead nationally, with about 30 percent of the vote. The politically similar Yavlinsky-Boldyrev-Lukin bloc had about 19 percent. The Communist Party had just over 8 percent.

Two other conservative parties also appear to be winning public sentiment, the Agrarian Party -- the defender of the nation's communal and state farms -- and the Liberal Democratic Party.

The Liberal Democratic Party, neither liberal nor democratic, is led by the fiercely nationalistic Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who won 6 percent of the vote in the 1991 presidential election by promising cheap vodka.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, he vowed to recapture the Baltics and even take over Finland. But in recent months he has moderated his image, siding with Mr. Yeltsin against the parliament, getting a stylish haircut and giving non-inflammatory speeches.

Plenty of slogans

"We hear plenty of primitive slogans, talking about cheap sausage and vodka," Mr. Menshikov said. "These slogans are accepted by people who can't or don't want to think about the deeper reasons."

The deeper reasons are complicated, involving the collapse of a woefully inefficient system that sacrificed everything to an expensive defense industry it couldn't sustain.

In an election campaign, and especially in one conducted before a people who grew up on lies from their leaders, such difficult issues aren't easily examined.

Because of this, Mr. Menshikov thinks his boss, Mr. Yeltsin, made a mistake in dismissing the former parliament and calling new elections for December.

"You can set a new election, but the deputies will represent the people, and you can't change the people -- at least not quickly," he said.

While many people feel an emotional attraction to Mr. Yeltsin, they may vote for the local candidates most familiar to them. And those may be more entrenched in the past than Mr. Yeltsin.

What attempts are being made to win the hearts and minds of voters are somewhat lackluster by America's razzmatazz standards.

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