Our Home's future not so sweet

Russian elections: Prime Minister's party faces a hiding from voters fed up with worsening poverty austerity
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The Independent Online
Viktor Chernomyrdin put a brave face yesterday on signs that his government-backed party will not fare well in the forthcoming Russian election by stoutly insisting there will be "no U-turn" in the government's reforms - no matter what happens at the ballot box.

Faced with poll after poll which shows that the Communists are considerably more popular than his centrist Our Home Is Russia, the Prime Minister appealed to Russians not to "rock the boat", arguing that the country's fortunes are about to turn the corner.

Next year "must and will become the first year of economic growth in Russia", he said. "The retreat has stopped, we have started moving forward." Production was improving; inflation estimates were down; a viable banking system had been introduced, and the rouble had strengthened.

Although Mr Chernomyrdin will today notch up his third anniversary as Prime Minister, he has never run for elective office in post-Soviet Russia. The grey former gas industry bureaucrat could hardly have chosen a tougher contest than Sunday's elections for the State Duma, or lower house of parliament.

His difficulty, and that of his party, is simple: most Russians - fed up with worsening poverty and a strong impression that the rewards of free market reforms have been snaffled by a grotesquely wealthy minority - are about as inclined to believe its life-is-not-as-bad-as-it-seems pitch as they are to abandon vodka in favour of goat's milk. In the eyes of many, especially in rural areas, these are the worst of times.

This may explain why Our Home appears to be heading for, at best, a mediocre performance in the election and, at worse, a thrashing. Although unreliable, polls suggest that it will not tally much above 10 per cent; it may even get little more than the 5 per cent required to qualify for a share of the 225 seats in the Duma distributed under proportional representation.

This is not for want of trying. The party was set up in April with the blessing of President Boris Yeltsin as part of a plan to establish two centrist blocs in the hope of drowning out their opponents. In recent weeks its team of professional strategists have been running an expensive and sophisticated campaign aimed at presenting it is as a moderate and modern, even hip, alternative to the more traditional image of the Communists and the knee-jerk rhetoric of nationalists. It is no coincidence that its leaders include Nikita Mikhalkov, the director of the Oscar-winning masterpiece Burnt By The Sun.

Our Home campaign colours crop up everywhere - from advertising billboards adorned with Mr Chernomyrdin's grim features to the Bolshoi theatre and Moscow rock concerts.

No one disputes that the party has a huge drawback in being associated with an unpopular government. But its status as the "party of power" also yields several sizeable advantages. It has plenty of money - the by-product of the support it wields in big business and banking, and among other beneficiaries of privatisation. And it has unrivalled access to the media. In particular, party-linked business interests own 49 per cent of ORT, the state-controlled Russian public television channel.

These perks do not appear to have done much good. Yesterday Mr Chernomyrdin admitted that the government had made mistakes, which it had sought to correct.

There is one final advantage which the party's conspiracy-minded opponents see as potentially significant: the government - and therefore, indirectly Our Home - controls most of the administrative apparatus that will count the votes.