Russia: Confused Russians plump for number 1

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WHEN the temperature drops to -10C, it is difficult to coax Muscovites to talk about politics on the street. Inside Red Square's renovated shopping arcade GUM, where the nouveaux riches waltz in and out of Yves Rocher and Benetton and the rest hunt for bargains in the cheaper stores, Russians are more inclined to linger and chat. But few have firm opinions about the forthcoming elections. 'I have not made up my mind yet', 'I am confused' and 'I cannot sort all these parties out' were typical comments last week.

Although some people are indifferent to Russia's first proper multi-party elections since the collapse of Communism and will probably not vote, many are interested and are trying to inform themselves. 'This is all new for us,' said pensioner Lyudmila Yushenko. 'I am watching the party political broadcasts on television and reading the papers like a good student but I can't decide.' Yelena Davgan, 28, a computer programmer, said she was impressed by the broadcasts of the Communists because 'with our poverty, they have lots of good ammunition for their campaign'. But would she vote for them? 'Oh Lord no, we've had enough of them.'

Indecision is even greater over President Boris Yeltsin's draft constitution, which will be judged in a referendum on the same day as the elections. Few people have read it. 'It's a big, thick book, I can tell you,' said Lydia Semyonova, a factory worker, who is halfway through the text and inclined not to finish it but to vote 'yes' anyway to save Russia from further political arguments.

Many of those who support Mr Yeltsin's market reforms are bewildered by the fact that the liberals have split into competing parties instead of uniting against the Communists and hardliners. 'I like (Yegor) Gaidar, (Sergei) Shakhrai and (Grigory) Yavlinsky, they're all nice young men,' said Nina Derbina, a cleaner. 'But what am I supposed to do now they're in different parties?' Mrs Yushenko said she feared 'the political struggle will continue to the advantage of (fascist leader Vladimir) Zhirinovsky'.

Those who know how they will vote often have a concrete personal reason for supporting a particular party. Yelena and Vladimir Petrov are going to vote for 'Russia's Choice' because Mr Gaidar and other ministers from the present cabinet who lead this electoral bloc are allowing citizens to become landowners. Said Vladimir: 'We applied, it was not so difficult as we imagined, now we are on a waiting-list but we already know which piece of land we will get. It is near the Volga and we will have a market garden. We are optimistic.' They are less sure about approving the constitution because they think it puts too much power in Mr Yeltsin's hands.

Nikolai Gerasimov will choose the Democratic Party of Russia because he is impressed by what its leader, Nikolai Travkin, a former moderate Communist, has done for the town of Shakhovskaya in Moscow region which he used to represent in the old Soviet-era parliament. 'I have my dacha there,' said Mr Gerasimov, a patents lawyer, 'and I know that Muscovites travel out to Shakhovskaya because the prices are lower than in the city. Travkin is a man whose deeds match his words. He has not tricked anyone.'

Nina Volovodova, an engineer, will vote for 'Women of Russia', hardly a feminist organisation but a group set up by socially concerned women because they found themselves excluded from the lists of other parties. 'It's time women had a turn,' she said.