Russian reform party gets booted off ballot Technicality, quarrel threaten election

November 03, 1995|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In Russia, where struggles always seem to be epic, it would sound hard to believe that the simple click of a telephone receiver could change the course of history.

But Sunday, when democratic reformist politician Grigory Yavlinsky slammed his phone down on Central Election Commission Chairman Nikolai Ryabov, Mr. Ryabov took Mr. Yavlinsky's very popular party off the ballot, and the resulting electoral crisis threatened the whole Russian political balance.

Finger-pointing and conspiracy theories over the crisis fell as thick and chilling as the first snow of the season this week. And political analysts say it's just a preview of the kinds of battles -- major and minor -- that will be fought as the former superpower reworks its old Soviet habits into the unfamiliar custom of democratic elections.

More than anything, the situation is seen as a scary example of the Russian lack of a democratic tradition.

The entire list of candidates in Mr. Yavlinsky's Yabloko party -- the most popular reformist party in the election lineup -- was barred from the December parliamentary elections over a legal technicality. The Supreme Court takes up the case today and is expected to find a way to bring the party back into the race.

But the prospect of what might have been was shocking.

"What we had here was a serious upheaval, a possible postponement of the election, a possible shift to the left of the Duma because two people didn't agree. This is a problem of the very absence of checks and balances," says Vladimir Averchev, a member of the Duma, or parliament, from Mr. Yavlinsky's party.

The two antagonists were Mr. Yavlinsky, a 43-year-old market economist with a reputation for arrogance, and Nikolai Ryabov, former chairman of the Communist Supreme Soviet who now chairs the Central Election Commission -- charged with overseeing fair play in the elections.

It was essentially a minor technical question.

Yabloko had submitted its final 200-plus federal list of candidates for registration for parliamentary elections. The list lacked 19 candidates from a preliminary list.

By the electoral commission's reading of regulations, a party must submit individual requests of withdrawal from candidates being dropped from the list. The regulations do not clearly state this.

Yabloko submitted those documents for 13 of the dropped candidates, but no documents for the remaining six -- including one farmer so far away in the hinterlands that Yabloko officials claimed he was unreachable by phone or fax.

By accounts from both sides of the case, electoral commission officials offered Yabloko leeway -- namely extra time -- in getting those papers.

But when deadlines had passed and Yabloko had not produced them, the two men had their fateful phone conversation.

Numbing "shock" descended on the 15-member electoral commission when they heard the results of the phone call, says Olga Zastroshnaya, a reformist parliamentary deputy on the electoral commission, who watched the Yavlinsky affair unfold.

"We couldn't believe the reaction would be so idiotic," says Ms. Zastroshnaya. "And we either had to close our eyes and drop legality and register the party, or stand by our ruling."

Even though she believes the party should have produced the papers, she abstained from joining the 10 other commissioners who voted to bar Yabloko from the elections. Basically, she says she doesn't think the party -- which she happens to support -- should be barred from the elections for such a minor technical violation.

But neither could she vote in Yabloko's favor after Mr. Yavlinsky so clearly snubbed what she believes is the commission's legitimate reading of the law.

The commission was the immediate target of criticism and derision here and abroad.

But Ms. Zastroshnaya saw the legalities.

"Suppose I was a candidate and all of a sudden I was dropped from the Yabloko list illegally, I could sue [the commission] and cast election results into question," she says.

But Mr. Averchev, the Yabloko member of the Duma, shrugs off the legal argument.

"Don't overestimate the value of a legal argument in this country," he says.

He sees the commission's attempt to force the issue as bureaucratic nitpicking of the old Soviet school, even a way for Mr. Ryabov to flaunt his authority. "We're just at the beginning of the process of democracy, we are not a law-abiding country."

"What worries me is that, when two people are in a bad mood, they can change the fate of who the next president will be. It's dangerous," he says, noting that Mr. Yavlinsky has one of the highest popularity ratings for the presidency at this point.

And if this week's problem seems like a major crisis, he says, "Just wait until the CEC [Central Election Commission] starts trying to monitor the sources of campaign financing."

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