A candidate who came in from the cold

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The Independent Online
IF THE campaign badges bearing Artyom Tarasov's picture had not been made by Enterprise Products Ltd, of Redhill, Surrey, he would have suspected a Communist plot: his face and bald head are bright red. Instead of sabotage, however, he accepts an easier explanation: 'They were very cheap.'

Less innocent is the import duty he had to pay at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport when the badges arrived, along with 400,000 plastic bags telling people to vote for him in today's parliamentary poll, in which he is standing as a candidate for the 'Kremlin constituency' of Moscow Central.

It took less than pounds 1,000 to have his campaign paraphernalia produced in England, but five times that plus a week of haggling to get the stuff through Russian customs. 'That is why I began the campaign so late,' says Mr Tarasov. Another reason is that he spent most of it in London, where he has lived since 1991.

Mr Tarasov, who declared himself the Soviet Union's first millionaire in 1989, is not optimistic: 'I don't stand a chance. I can't win. There are instructions.' But he can create a stir. He has been doing that since 1987 when he opened a 'co-operative', a matchmaking agency that promptly went bust, followed by two other more successful ventures, the trading firms Tekhnika and Istok.

Then the fun went out of being Russia's most celebrated tycoon. Police raided his Moscow office, Mikhail Gorbachev threatened to sue him for attacking the 'honour and dignity of the president', Pravda - without any solid evidence - linked him with the mafia, and a lucrative fuel oil deal began to attract attention. In February 1991, Mr Tarasov fled. This is his first trip home.

Moscow Central is the seat Boris Yeltsin stood for in 1989 to salvage his career after expulsion from the Politburo - the most prestigious and hotly contested in the country.

Fearful of arrest for past business deals, Mr Tarasov waited until he had received his cream candidate's card before boarding the plane. He carries it everywhere because it gives him immunity from prosecution. At least, it has done until today: police want to see him as a 'witness' this morning.

When Mr Yeltsin stood for Moscow Central in 1989 politics was clear-cut. It was him against the Party, and he won 89.6 per cent of the vote. Today, there are 16 candidates standing in the constituency, all with their own muddy agendas.

Mr Tarasov's campaign theme is simple. It adorns the plastic bags that cost so much to get through customs: 'If you want this bag forever full of goods, vote for Artyom Tarasov.' He says that only a businessman knows how a free market works, promises a lottery after the poll and has numbered each of his campaign flyers. The winner will receive the money left in his election account.

Among his rivals is Alexander Krasnov, a disillusioned reformer now more angry with Mr Yeltsin than the Communists. As head of a Moscow district council, he received a phone call on the evening of 3 October from Alexander Rutskoi, appointing him boss of the whole city.

The job lasted less than 24 hours. By the following evening, Mr Rutskoi was in jail and the parliament building from which he pretended to rule Russia was on fire. Mr Krasnov took the day off.

The front-runner is Fyodor Shelov-Kovedyaev, backed by the pro-Yeltsin Russia's Choice. Unlike his rivals, he sometimes addresses local issues such as road repairs, Metro fares and a daytime ban on lorries in the city centre.

When Mr Tarasov fled in 1991, he blamed his problems on the hardline backlash that would reach its climax in the August coup. He was an easy target for party officials.

Today, they are either facing trial, dead or, like Mr Gorbachev, irrelevant. But Mr Tarasov says he hates equally the 'democrats' who took their places. 'They stand on the necks of my friends. I'm against all those in power who don't want to lose it.' This morning he will find out if the feeling is mutual. He waves the card from the police: 'This is not an invitation, but a medical report on a society that is again becoming a police state.'