A Putin rival tries to waken Russian voters to democracy

Woman hopes to preserve Western-style reforms

February 16, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- She feels like one of her samurai ancestors, she says, preparing to do battle against a far stronger force.

Slight, poised and garbed in black, Irina Khakamada knows she doesn't have a prayer of winning Russia's presidential elections March 14. By challenging President Vladimir V. Putin, she has been warned that she puts herself at physical risk.

But the 48-year-old economist, whose father was a Japanese Bolshevik and whose mother was a Russian, says that someone has to defend democracy in Russia.

A nationwide opinion poll late last month by VCIOM Analytic Agency found only 1 percent of voters backing Khakamada, compared with 67 percent for Putin. She lacks endorsements from prominent pro-democracy politicians, who have questioned her reasons for running. She has a skeleton campaign staff and no money for television ads.

To her, the contest isn't about winning but about "waking up" voters to the threat to Russia's fledgling free markets and democratic institutions.

Her grievances against the Kremlin include its crackdown on the press, its relentless pursuit of the war in Chechnya and the concern that the state is again using police and the courts to punish political foes.

Almost all government power, she said, is concentrated in the hands of one person, Putin.

"There is no division of powers, as called for in the constitution," she said. "The courts, parliament, the presidential administration, the government -- it's all the same thing."

A decision to run

In parliamentary elections in December, Russia's liberal democrats were routed. The two main democratic parties -- the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, and Yabloko -- saw their representation in the State Duma reduced to seven seats from 49.

Among the losers were prominent reformers, including Khakamada, an SPS leader, who lost her bid for re-election in a St. Petersburg district.

Politically battered, the liberals tried to unite behind a single presidential candidate. But none of the leading figures from either party wanted to run. Challenging an overwhelmingly popular figure such as Putin, whose approval ratings reached 84 percent last month, "is like murder for a politician, it's like suicide," Khakamada said.

There was talk about boycotting the election and waiting until 2008 to field a presidential candidate. To Khakamada, that notion was foolish. If pro-democracy forces didn't campaign in 2004, she warned, there might not be a 2008 election.

She decided to run herself.

From that moment, other liberals began to question her motives. Was she running on behalf of the Kremlin to add a veneer of legitimacy to a sham election?

Asked about this, Khakamada's lips tighten. She rolls her eyes. It's not true, she says. But the fact that that question is always raised, she adds, shows how suspicion and fear still have Russia by the throat.

"It's a sign that we have built somehow wrong here, something not quite right."

Sergei A. Kalmykov, vice president of the Moscow-based Development of Parliament Foundation, said about half the voters who would usually support liberal democrats defected in December parliamentary elections to the nationalist Motherland Party.

The two liberal democratic parties, SPS and Yabloko, represent the hopes of engineers and other professionals, who are among the strongest advocates of Western-style institutions and market reforms. If no pro-reform democrats were to challenge Putin for the presidency, many believers in Western-style government could permanently lose faith.

"From that point of view, the move of Mrs. Khakamada for the presidency is quite understandable," Kalmykov said. "Maybe she will use this opportunity to spread some doubts about the general lines of Mr. Putin's politics. Maybe she will create an agenda for the merger of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces."

One thing she can't do is win. "But if she receives 5 percent," Kalmykov said, "it will be a great success."

Achieving even that seemingly modest goal will require hard work and some luck.

Coverage of Khakamada on Russia's state-controlled television has been mostly negative, focusing on her ties to Russia's oligarchs. The tycoons made billions of dollars buying state assets in the freewheeling 1990s, while millions of ordinary Russians lost their life savings to bank failures and currency collapses.

On Jan. 14, the Russian billionaire Leonid Nevzlin, a major shareholder in Yukos Oil, pledged to help Khakamada. She saw the offer as a lifesaver for her struggling campaign.

Within days, Russian prosecutors issued a warrant seeking Nevzlin's extradition from Israel, where he moved last year. She felt it was an indirect effort to smear her.

The NTV television network, which once boasted Russia's most independent and professional broadcast news operation, reported that Khakamada's campaign was being financed by Yukos.

Nevzlin has provided organizational support but no money, Khakamada's campaign staff said.

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