Out of Russia: Fourth Estate balks at making way for tribunes of the people

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - As the world frets about Russia turning fascist, Moscow too is in tizzy, not so much over who will sit in the new parliament - how many brown-shirts and buffoons with bow-ties? - but over an altogether more vexed issue.

The problem is: where will they sit? Since elections put Vladimir Zhirinovsky on television screens around the world, nothing has caused quite so much agitation as the location of the new legislature. Forget the eternal Russian question posed by Lenin and many others - What is to be done? - it is a more mundane squabble over real estate that excites the Russian media, at least the 37 shoe-string publications and one radio station with offices at No 26 Pushkinskaya Street.

The building is a monstrosity, an affront to what, on all sides, is some of Moscow's most elegant architecture. The exterior is grey concrete, the interior ill-lit and brown, the only dab of colour provided by a New Year pine tree just installed in the lobby. The address also carries a Gypsy curse, said to have been hurled centuries ago but still active. One other thing: the electric wall-clocks are all broken. The previous tenant, the Soviet Council of Ministers, gutted the wiring when Boris Yeltsin served an eviction order after the August 1991 putsch. The prime minister, Nikolai Pavlov, was thrown out and put in jail; the building got new tenants and a new name: The Russian House of Press.

Mr Yeltsin now wants the journalists out too. Also told to scram are a Swedish kitchen-showroom, the South Korean Daewoo company and two dozen other companies whose rent helped keep The Russian Invalid, New Youth and the impoverished optimists at Hope magazine afloat.

The Kremlin says it needs the premises for the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the new parliament. Tenants have plastered the corridors with paper saying: Nyet. Posters in the lobby elaborate: 'Don't chuck us out.' Others refer to Mr Yeltsin's tactics at the White House, headquarters of the last parliament: 'Don't storm us' or 'We have no swords in our hands, only pens.' When Mr Yeltsin gave his first and only post-election press conference, he faced taunts over the House of Press and had to offer an assurance: 'I think we can do without another storming.'

What upsets most of all is that they consider themselves devoted Yeltsinites. Snatching property from enemies - limos and offices from Mikhail Gorbachev - they can understand. But friends? 'No building in Moscow has done more for President Yeltsin than this one,' splutters Gennady Musayelyan, the Press House director. 'The situation in Russia is so dangerous. The law has no force. This building was given to journalists as a present from the president. He is a wedding guest who presents flowers, drinks champagne and dances and then, at the end, asks for his flowers back.' He reels off all the battles fought on Mr Yeltsin's side: August 1991, October 1993 and smaller engagements. 'Yesterday they shot up parliament, today they take the House of Press; what will be next?'

Yuri Shakutin, a 63-year-old journalist with Selskaya Nov, is also feeling jilted. 'I was with Yeltsin from the very start and now he does this.' He went on hunger strike and slept in a tent in the lobby until a heart murmur forced him to call off the protest. He still voted for the pro-Yeltsin Russia's Choice in the election, casting his ballot from the tent, but sniffs at the Kremlin's offer of alternative office space - eight floors on Novy Arbat. 'It will be like living in communal flat.'

The romantic age of Russian democracy has passed. Everything is up for grabs; everyone has a claim. More often than not it is good contacts, not the good case, that triumphs. And so at the Russian House of Press. It used to have the best contacts in town: two of Mr Yeltsin's cronies, Mikhail Poltoranin, its sponsor, and Gennady Burbulis, who has an office on the third floor. But both have fallen from favour, at least for now.

The root of the row, though, is that Mr Yeltsin delivered on a pledge made at the House of Press in August. Declaring a 'decisive battle' ahead, he told his audience, which included most of those he now wants evicted, to 'ready the artillery'. On 4 October, the artillery was fired - into the old parliament. The result was a charred and, after firemen did their bit, soggy wreck. Mr Yeltsin ruled that the refurbished White House would be for his cabinet, not the new legislators. Anyway, it would not be ready for 11 January, when they gather.

Kremlin property agents rushed off to seek possible sites. They came up with a split solution: the House of Press for the upper house and a skyscraper, originally built for Comecon, the defunct Soviet trade bloc and now housing the International Monetary Fund and the Mayor of Moscow's office among others, for the State Duma, or lower house.

Everyone was furious. But for a president fed up with lip from legislators, the plan had irresistible appeal: bolshy deputies would have to travel across Moscow, not down the corridor, just to share a cup of tea, never mind a conspiracy. 'They won't be able to form a single fist. They will be a lot easier to manipulate,' says Mr Musayelyan. Parliament, though, shows no sign of being as docile as Mr Yeltsin expected when he first fixed the seating arrangements a week before the election. Some deputies are hollering for their old rooms back in the White House. Others are more ambitious. 'Our place is next to the president, next to the king. We have to watch him,' scoffs Viktor Ilyukhin, a leader of the revamped Communist Party. 'Our place is the Kremlin.'