Politicians soft-soap Russian viewers

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The Independent Online
RUSSIANS are having a new experience this week - being bombarded by party political broadcasts in the run-up to the country's first proper multi-party elections since the collapse of Communism. But most of them, it seems, would prefer to watch the plethora of foreign soap operas on offer - Santa Barbara from the United States, Simply Maria from Mexico and Revenge from Venezuela.

'Oh, I expect I will vote on 12 December but I don't want to think about politics just yet,' said Natalya, a Revenge fan who got up to make dinner when the centrist Civic Union opened the television election campaign on Monday night.

To judge from the public apathy, you would never guess that Russia goes to the polls in under three weeks to choose a parliament to replace the Soviet-era legislature forcibly ousted by President Boris Yeltsin this autumn.

But this time, as well as being asked to choose from 487 candidates standing for the Federation Council (upper house) and 13 parties fielding candidates for the State Duma (lower house), voters must also approve or reject a new constitution which limits regional autonomy and increases presidential powers at the expense of parliament. A poll by the Itogi current affairs programme found that 76 per cent of Russians had not read the document, although it has been published in the press, and 49 per cent of those who had informed themselves had not made up their minds about the text.

The party political broadcasts should give voters a clearer idea about the 13 parties on offer and help combat the perception that the politicians are 'all the same'. For the Federation Council, 40 per cent of candidates are from the present government administration and 13 per cent were members of the disbanded parliament. Two plotters of the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev are even hoping for seats.

With hardliners who took an active part in the October uprising against Mr Yeltsin banned, the main opposition group is Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party of the Russian Federation. The successor to the old Soviet Communist Party, it has a wide network of volunteers in the field and commentators reckon it could capitalise on dissatisfaction with Mr Yeltsin's reforms and draw as much as 30 per cent of the vote.

But supporters of the President have failed to unite to meet this challenge. The two main pro-Yeltsin parties are each led by members of the cabinet but they are pitted against each other. The radical free-marketeer, Yegor Gaidar, leads Russia's Choice which promises to see through the transformation to capitalism, while the Party of Russian Unity and Accord (PRES), led by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai, wants to take the shock out of economic therapy and emphasises regional interests.

Yesterday the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, said the cabinet was working well despite the fact that key members were campaigning against each other. 'The important thing is that the government programme is accepted,' he told Trud newspaper. 'In fact this is like a model for a coalition government: its members have different political positions but they work together.'

Mr Chernomyrdin is trying to stand above the political fray in the hope of remaining Prime Minister after the elections. A possible scenario, if Russia's Choice and PRES can agree, is a coalition government under him with the Communists making up a vociferous opposition.