Out of Russia: Mythical money helps to buy voters

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The Independent Online
MYTISHCHI - A step further and I would have been sucked under the motorcade of Russia's best-known butterfly collector, odd-ball and sometime jail bird.

A shiny black Mercedes and two new Land Cruisers zoomed past the decrepit Motherland Cinema and screeched to a halt just opposite the local Lenin statue. It was the flamboyant entree of Sergei Mavrodi, announced by the squeal of tyres, the glare of television lights and the grunts of half a dozen bodyguards.

With only two days to go before a by-election to replace an MP shot dead six months ago on his own doorstep, the leading candidate for District No 109 decided yesterday to finally put in an appearance. He stayed for all of 10 minutes - just long enough to pick up his registration card, stomp into the office of the absent mayor, harangue a startled secretary and then state bluntly why he wanted a seat in the State Duma: 'If I don't get elected there is a good chance I will get arrested.'

Such are the eccentricities of Russian democracy in what even the head of the local election commission, Yuri Zhigulin, concedes is a very odd contest: 'We are living in strange times. If you understand Russia you will understand what is happening here. This is normal.'

Among 12 candidates hoping to replace Andrei Aydzerdis - killed after he published a list of prominent mobsters - is a neo-fascist vowing to purify the nation and a businessman offering tips on how to cook mushrooms. Most intriguing, though, is Mr Mavrodi, chairman of the MMM investment fund, architect of Russia's most spectacular financial scandal, and a world-class dream-merchant cursed as a conman and feted as a hero by millions of Russians.

He is not bashful about why it took him until yesterday to set foot in the constituency, less than an hour's drive north of Moscow: 'I've not had much time . . . it is not long since a got out of jail.' Arrested in August on charges of tax fraud, Mr Mavrodi spent most of the campaign in prison, issuing directives to MMM staff, drafting statements to investors, and half reviving a pyramid scheme declared defunct by the state.

But even when a team of laywers managed to get him out earlier this month, Mr Mavrodi still showed no interest in kissing babies or pressing the flesh.

A dumpy man with thin, wavy hair and glasses, he presents himself as a scrappy outsider, an anti-candidate with no time for the ordinary conventions of political campaigning. He skipped a series of debates in each of the five main towns of District 109.

Instead, he sponsored concerts in the park. He also invested heavily in advertising on television and in the press - the tactics he used to sell MMM. His campaign slogan, emblazoned on posters on nearly every wall, mines the same rich vein of desperate, gullible hope that led as many as 10 million Russians to entrust him with their life savings: 'I will turn our district into a region of prosperity.'

That he barely knows where the district is does not seem to matter. While MMM investors were promised a house in Paris, voters are assured a new telephone each and dollars 10m (pounds 6.3m) from Mr Mavrodi's pocket for community projects. 'Everyone is sick of politics. Practically no one is interested in the political views of any of the candidates,' he says, explaining a strategy of no speeches and big spending. 'People are interested in what the candidates can really do for them. They ask who has the ability to help. This requires means, and who has greater means than the head of MMM?'

But can this so far largely mythical money levitate the disbelief of 490,000 voters. Mr Mavrodi, too, might have trouble piercing a thickening carapace of contempt. Outside the Motherland Cinema passers-by watched the Mavrodi motorcade with disgust: 'We are all fed up. Virtually no one believes in any of them,' said Raisa Kuznetsova, a book-keeper in a struggling state factory. 'Not a single deputy ever helps anyone but themselves. I'm not sure I'll even bother to vote.'

But Mr Mavrodi can count on one solid contingent - the people he bamboozled in the first place. If he loses on Sunday and goes back to jail, they lose all hope of getting their money back. 'Lenin, Stalin, all the good people went to jail. It gave them experience, enriched them,' says Viktor Kapchenko, a veteran of the siege of Leningrad, nostalgic Communist and stout defender of a decision to gamble the family savings on MMM. 'Mavrodi has been in jail so he is definitely what we need.'

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