Hottest ticket in Russia? Slot for paying candidate

Political bosses sell places on party lists

October 15, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- A Russian political boss, sitting down in seclusion to put together his party's list of candidates for December's parliamentary elections, scratches his head and seeks that perfect blend that spells success. He wants a few candidates who bring celebrity to the ticket, perhaps a general or two, a couple of women, a Jew or a Muslim -- and then a trainload of others who might be thought of as the paying passengers.

Political parties here typically make ends meet by selling slots on their lists of candidates.

The beauty of it is, there are plenty of people who, for a variety of reasons, are only too happy to join up. The hottest ticket in town these days is the political one.

When ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, put an aluminum company president, who happens to be wanted by the police, in the No. 2 spot on his party list, the rumor was that the executive had paid $5 million for the privilege. That list, in the end, was disallowed by the election commission, so Zhirinovsky is putting together a new one, presumably at new and improved prices.

Other slots command less. The newspaper Argumenty i Fakty reported this week that a would-be candidate for the Fatherland-All Russia bloc was said to have made a "symbolic" payment of $250,000.

"This is a hidden form of financing," said Vladimir Rimsky, an analyst with the Indem Foundation, which is devoted to the development of democracy in Russia. "It's practically impossible to prove, and it's a way for businessmen to pay for services they received or hope to receive in the future."

The two dozen or so blocs, factions and parties that will take part in the Dec. 19 election have a few days left to submit their rosters of hopefuls.

Half of the State Duma, parliament's powerful lower house, is chosen from districts; the other half is seated according to the percentage of votes each party receives. A party ranks its candidates. If it wins enough votes to put 15 members into the Duma, for example, the top 15 names on its list get the nod.

Each party can put forward as many as 450 candidates, counting both categories, which makes for a lucrative business.

Georgy Boos was responsible for putting together the list for the Fatherland-All Russia group, and his colleagues, according to Argumenty i Fakty, described him as the man who "filtered the bazaar."

Vladimir Lysenko, a member of the Duma, had been on Boos' at-large list, but then word came that it had too many Muscovites on it, and he was persuaded to withdraw. Lysenko chose to run instead in a Moscow district. All was well, he said yesterday, until one day he discovered by chance that he had been struck off that list, too. He has since heard, he said, that his place had been sold to the chief of one of Moscow's vegetable markets.

That kind of practice is illegal. Yevgeny M. Primakov, one of the Fatherland-All Russia standard-bearers, said at a news conference yesterday that something had to be done about corruption in Russia. But he's a former prime minister, one of the top names. It is the foot soldiers of politics who keep things going and the machine well-oiled.

Is all this about people buying their way into the Duma? Not exactly.

The top three people on almost every list are politicians, party leaders. Typically, they're followed by people well known to the public, such as military heroes, film directors and authors. These are the names that, in theory, will induce the public to vote for the party. The politicians think of them as the steam engine that pulls the rest of the candidates along.

"Voters seldom study the whole list," said Rimsky. "They trust those first few names."

Only at about the No. 10 slot does the list-making become crass. Realistically, that limits the number who can be said to have paid their way into parliament.

Candidates further down the list have other motives besides becoming public servants. One is simply to make a form of campaign contribution in a way that will go unreported. Another is to have had the prestige of being close to powerful politicians. In Moscow, for example, it is advantageous for a businessman to be perceived as close to Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov, said Rimsky, "and that proximity turns into real money down the road."

For others, it is simply a season's worth of valuable advertising.

Even the Communist Party list includes, in fairly high slots, a bank president and an oil company executive, not the usual sort of comrades.

The one disadvantage of being a candidate is that financial and property holdings must be reported. That becomes a creative exercise for many.

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