Russia: Veteran of White House showdown woos Omsk

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IT IS MINUS 25C in Siberia and the Mephistopheles of Russian nationalism sits shivering in the back of his campaign bus, a clunky green delivery van on loan from the Omsk Times, a weekly tribune of anger against Boris Yeltsin and the world.

Next stop is the No 2 Construction Bureau. After that comes the Vostok Yarn Plant. Each venue gets the same stump speech: tales of derring-do from the Moscow barricades laced with dollops of fear: 'In a couple of years,' the candidate tells a packed audience at the House of Teachers, 'only a handful of people will speak Russian in Russia'.

The former MP Sergei Baburin, political pin-up for pauperised pensioners, standard-bearer for seething black-shirted youth and hate figure for Russia's new market nomenklatura, is on the campaign trail. As the van jolts forward, he wipes spittle from his face. It was left not in anger but in adoration. A babushka accosted him in the corridor, begged him to preserve his health and save Russia, and slobbered over his cheeks.

Mr Baburin is a punctilious man. He fishes a small plastic comb from his pocket and runs it through his hair, black streaked with white. He pats his Lenin-goatee, far more famous than his words. His hair slick and beard in shape, he is ready for Omsk Central District and the nastiest and most important election battle.

If there is anyone the Kremlin wants to keep out of the State Duma it is Mr Baburin, founder of the banned National Salvation Front. He is an implacable foe of Mr Yeltsin in the disbanded Congress of People's Deputies and star of speeches from the White House balcony during the final days of the last legislature, elected in 1990, abolished by decree on 21 September and blown up on 4 October.

The task should have been easy. The simplest route to the Duma - election on a party list - is closed: Mr Baburin's bloc, the Russian All People's Union, was disqualified. He retreated home to Omsk, as did Dostoevsky on orders from the tsar a century ago and White Russian leader, Admiral Kolchak, after the revolution. Mr Baburin cloaks himself in the same aura of dogged righteousness. He loves telling how he lay on the floor and read poetry while tanks pounded the White House: 'Compromise? If I catch a pickpocket with his hand on my wallet should I compromise?'

He is one of seven candidates. And this is his great hope. In Omsk, the demokrati are in disarray, with five candidates standing under the same banner for the same seat. Mr Baburin's main rival for the disgruntled vote will be the Communist Party, dispirited but united behind one candidate. 'Our problem is we have no democratic centralism, no discipline,' explains Alexander Minzhurenko, a former historian now serving as Mr Yeltsin's Omsk representative and agent for Russia's Choice, a reformist bloc headed by Yegor Gaidar. 'The Communists still have their old structures, their mentality.'

Mr Minzhurenko whispers that Mr Baburin's father suffered from schizophrenia. Might not the son be blighted too? 'He is dangerous. Fascist is not an insult for him. His only goal is personal power. He has pathological urges.' The local pro- Yeltsin newspaper, Evening Omsk, did its bit by printing a vituperative letter warning that Mr Baburin would 'doom all Russia to blood and firing squads'. The letter arrived by fax from Moscow in the name of 194 concerned Muscovites. Only six signed their name.

It smacks of an old-style smear.

The Evening Omsk editor makes no apologies. 'We try to be neutral,' says Yuri Berezhnou, guffawing with laughter, 'but most of our staff support Russia's Choice.' A burly Siberian who offers vodka in the morning and has two air-conditioners blasting ice-cold air into his office, he has no strong feelings either way. 'Russia cannot be understood by pure reason,' he advises. 'A famous poet said it but I can't remember which one.'

The dirtiest battle in Omsk Central rages in the trenches of what is supposed to be the same side. Of five reformist or centrist candidates, the two main ones are fighting each other. They are Sergei Nosovets, 35, a radical MP in the old parliament and director of the Omsk Television and Radio Company. He wears a green suit with pointed lapels and finances his campaign with a 3m-rouble pay-off from the Kremlin for leaving the White House in time. The other is Valentin Zolnikov, a bland builder with no political experience but powerful business friends who like his plans for a state-sponsored building blitz. The flashiest thing about him is his Rolex.

Mr Nosovets has the backing of Russia's Choice in Moscow; Mr Zolnikov of Russia's Choice in Omsk. Each says the other is bound to lose and should step down to avoid splitting the vote. Instead of campaigning, Mr Nosovets spends his time buttering up big-wigs in the capital. He says the reformist camp in Omsk is 'infiltrated by underworld circles trying to divide Russia'. Mr Zolnikov, meanwhile, wants his rival disqualified for registration irregularities. His camp fans rumours of corruption: a new car for Mr Nosovets and a 12m rouble credit for his wife.

Mr Baburin and the Communist candidate, Alexander Kravets - a crew-cut true believer - are delighted. While the democrats fight, they campaign. Mr Baburin tugs endlessly on the same themes: worthless savings; uppity colonials ('Ukrainians think Jesus Christ is a Ukrainian'); crime and deep fear about the future: 'When I meet people my first question is how many children do you have? If they respond one I say: 'criminal'.' Viktor Alksnis, a rumpled veteran of far-right lost causes known as the 'black colonel', warms up the audience. Mr Baburin denies being an extremist: 'For some I'm too Red, for others too White. They prefer one shade of paint.'

The Communist, Mr Kravets, employs many of the same themes. But he talks too fast and is out of touch. One popular campaign stop is the Omsk Agriculture and Technical College - which, despite the name, serves as a finishing school for fashionable young secretaries. A good turn-out is guaranteed: students cannot get their coats from the cloakroom until the candidate finishes talking. Mr Kravets lectures them about cabbage smuggling and the evils of shock therapy. Few listen. They pass notes; girls put on lipstick; couples kiss in the back. Asked at the end if he had got his message across, Mr Kravets says: 'The human skull is the strongest of all fortresses. But I think most found confirmation of their own thoughts in my speech.'

The Communists and Mr Baburin both complain about not having enough money. Mr Kravets runs his campaign from his flat. The old party apparatus deserted him. 'I will not win this election but I will not lose,' he says. The point is to keep the flag flying. Mr Baburin has his campaign headquarters at the Omsk Times, squeezed into a tiny room. It shares a telephone with the Journalists' Union next door. The paper provides do-it-yourself Baburin posters: a front page picture and text that can be cut out and pasted up.

The pro-Yeltsin camp, though divided, has huge advantages. Mr Nosovets boasts about how, as head of the local television station, 'I show myself all the time.' Mr Baburin gets on only when the law demands broadcast time: 'I make sure of this.' Why? 'Baburin is the devil. He has blood of Muscovites on his hands.'

The other main pro-government candidate, Mr Zolnikov, runs his campaign from the office of the President's Representative in the Omsk Administration Building. It has a fax machine, photocopier, secretary, two full-time staff and boxes of posters and leaflets from Moscow. More important is the cash from a self-made millionaire, Andrei Golushko, 29. Mr Golushko runs Aktsiya, a trade and construction company that could make a fortune if Mr Zolnikov wins. Mr Golushko, guarded by beefy young men with crew cuts and expensive suits, explains why he bankrolls Mr Zolnikov: 'He is an owner like me. He has property to lose like me. When he defends his own property in parliament he will be defending mine too.' His desk is piled with campaign receipts: paid television time and written-to-order articles in the local press. Despite all the help, Mr Zolenko is uncomfortable as candidate and would rather build houses: 'I get nervous. I don't like talking to strangers in a big auditorium. I've never done this before.'

No one knows who will triumph - which suggests a fair degree of democracy: 'In Omsk,' says Mr Baburin, 'anyone could win. A hippo could get in if he tried.'

(Photographs omitted)

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