It has long been said that politicians are becoming nonentities; that almost all political parties taking part in elections have indistinguishable policy programs; that the top levels of the legislative and executive branches have been taken over by unprincipled fortune-hunters or faceless functionaries following somebody else’s orders. However, some recent articles on this theme really do sound like a cry from the heart.

Writing in Novoe Vremya magazine about the two most significant recent election campaigns – the gubernatorial election in St. Petersburg and the presidential election in Chechnya – Ilya Milstein says: “People whose concepts of civil society haven’t been entirely purged found these campaigns distasteful… Yet the prevalent feeling still turned out to be boredom. Deathly, mind-numbing boredom.” The public didn’t even react when President Putin broke electoral laws twice – in the campaigns of Valentina Matvienko and Akhmad Kadyrov. “This vast country has forgiven them all, for decades to come. And anyone who didn’t forgive them went and voted against all candidates, while likewise dying of boredom.”

Essentially, says Milstein, Russia is “gradually being trained away from democracy.” Elections, formerly a colorful show featuring the leading performers on the political stage, have become “a parade of leaders everyone is tired of, making promises everyone is tired of hearing, wearing resolutely slack expressions; without the slightest hope of any vividly impressive characters, actions, or speeches.” So it’s not surprising that the people prefer not to vote at all (at least, wherever not voting is feasible and not dangerous): “After all, there’s nobody to vote for anyway. It’s a desert out there.”

Russia’s authorities have always valued “colorless functionaries”, says Milstein. “However, never before have these colorless people flourished like they do today, or been so successful at initiating and winning the game, sowing miserable boredom in the hearts of voters.” Actually, the people are not protesting: “The people are simply yawning, and honestly not turning out to vote in elections where there is no one worth voting for.”

NG-Regiony (a supplement to Nezavisimaya Gazeta) says centralized government has now become so strong that “it can essentially appoint the regional leaders it wants, even in the most problematic regions. There isn’t really anyone out there who can resist the entrenched centralized authorities – no truly strong parties, no truly outstanding politicians. There are none in the regions, and there are none in Moscow itself.”

According to NG-Regiony, the St. Petersburg election showed that “on this threadbare political playing field, virtually any candidate imposed on voters from above can bloom and flourish, given the proper cultivation.”

Moreover, says NG-Regiony, Russia’s electoral laws have clearly reached some kind of peak in terms of being convenient for the election-organizers: “In the second round of voting in St. Petersburg, for example, voter turnout didn’t mean anything. Even if it had been 5%, or 1.5%, the election would have been valid!”

Meanwhile, concerns about “dirty campaign tactics” are being used as a pretext for restricting media commentary on elections and candidates; while “the authorities continue to use campaign tactics – exclusively clean ones, apparently – with more and more license and scope.”

NG-Regiony comments philosophically that six weeks before the Duma elections and five months before the presidential election, all these and other conclusions “are significant not only theoretically, but in applied terms as well.”

There are also some more down-to-earth points of view on electoral practice in Russia; as a rule, these are held by observers who choose to look at facts and figures about parties and electoral blocs, and the candidates they are nominating.

“Parties aren’t divided into right-wing and left-wing. They are divided into those who can win elections and those who can’t,” says Leonid Radzikhovsky in the Versiya weekly. At any rate, that is the distinction drawn in the current campaign by business. In Radzikhovsky’s view, this is evident from the declarations of assets submitted by the candidates.

Oddly enough, the candidate who declared the greatest personal wealth is with the Communist Party (CPRF). Actually, it isn’t odd at all – given that the candidate, who represents the YUKOS oil company, is Sergei Muravlenko (with a personal fortune of $50 million and annual income of $11 million). In addition to Muravlenko, the CPRF has four other candidates who are millionaires in dollar terms, and another candidate, Igor Linshits, is worth $800,000.

The Yabloko party also has a YUKOS representative – Konstantin Kagalovsky, whose wealth is almost equal to that of Muravlenko.

Radzikhovsky counts six millionaires (including Anatoly Chubais) on the electoral list of the Union of Right Forces (URF). Yet the ultra-liberal Automobile Russia party has no millionaires at all; which is also strange, if one recalls that its electoral lists include Boris Federov, for example, “of whose wealth the papers have said so much.” However, if Fedorov’s declaration of assets is to be believed, his income last year was only $7,400 (though he does own eight plots of land in the Moscow region, which already makes him a multi-millionaire).

Yet the poor Automobile Russia party has a total of 17 candidates who have no income at all, while an eighteenth has declared an income of one ruble for last year. Radzikhovsky notes: “Apparently, with a suitably frugal lifestyle, it’s possible to get by on that.”

No one seems embarrassed by such crazy figures – neither the Central Electoral Commission nor the candidates themselves. Nevertheless, Radzikhovsky observes, even these figures make a good deal more sense than the policy programs of most parties.

At any rate, certain simple conclusions may well be drawn from them. For example: “Rich people are far more eager to join the CPRF, which can get elected to parliament, than the Automobile Russia party – which may be very liberal, but will not succeed in the elections.”

In short, says Radzikhovsky, “party businesses are distinguished only by electoral capitalization, not ideological capital.”

According to the Novye Izvestia newspaper, the ranking of the top ten richest candidates is not headed by Muravlenko the oil oligarch, but by modest Duma member Gennadi Gudkov. He is running for the Duma with the People’s Party. Gudkov has declared an income of 587,500,880 rubles for 2002. As Gudkov himself explains, this includes his salary as a Duma member and dividends from his shares and investments. Novye Izvestia asks: isn’t it astonishing that this simple Russian investor apparently made more money last year than the notorious oil tycoons?

Novye Izvestia also quotes the confident words of Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov at a meeting with voters in Lipetsk, on the sensitive issue of big business representatives being included on CPRF electoral lists.

Gennadi Zyuganov said: “At the present national liberation and national democratic stage of the battle, the CPRF is striving to unite around itself all the healthy forces in society, all those who feel pain for the fate of the state. Among those helping us are representatives of small business and medium-sized business, nationally-oriented entrepreneurs.” But the Communist leader categorically denied the possibility of having contacts with the oligarchs: “It’s ridiculous – what kind of oligarch would give money to a party that takes a principled stand on returning to the people all the natural resources wealth that has been grabbed by ten clans? All these old wives’ tales about the hand of Berezovsky or Khodorkovsky are complete nonsense.”

It sounds very convincing – unless you take a look at the CPRF’s list of candidates, of course…

Novye Izvestia notes that the electoral list of United Russia also includes plenty of the super-rich, the very rich, and the simply rich. For example, there’s Viktor Rashnikov, general director of the Magnitogorsk Metals Plant; and Viktor Timchenko, vice-president of the Tyumen Oil Company (TNK); and Leonid Simakovsky, chairman of the board at an oil and gas company; and many others.

However, United Russia’s greatest assets are its administrative resources, of course. The number of United Russia candidates who have access to state resources “is simply breath-taking”, says Novye Izvestia. If all the Category A state officials who are United Russia candidates really do take a leave of absence during the campaign, as the law requires, this could have unpredictable consequences. According to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, there are around 60 such candidates (including Luzhkov himself). Novye Izvestia observes: “It’s painful even to imagine dozens of office chairs of senior officials suddenly being left empty, all across Russia, especially with winter approaching.”

As the Vedomosti newspaper reports, there are also some people of substance on the list of United Russia’s “trusted representatives.” Among them are Vladimir Yevtushenkov, chairman of the board at the Sistema company; Vitali Vilchik, president and general director of AvtoVAZ; Andrei Kozitsyn, co-owner and general director of the Urals Mining Company; Vladimir Ponomarenko, YUKOS representative in the Tomsk region; and many others.

Observers say United Russia intends to use these “VIP campaign staff” to demonstrate the authority and influence of its candidates.

Meanwhile, United Russia’s rivals – the CPRF, the URF, and Yabloko – have announced that they do not intend to use business leaders or executives from large companies as trusted representatives, since they strongly doubt whether such a move will be effective.

Political consultant Gleb Kuznetsov told Vedomosti that United Russia is keeping to “the Soviet tradition” of campaigning; this entails the assumption that a leader – the director of an enterprise, for example – is always an authority figure for subordinates. However, says Kuznetsov, the situation these days is rather the reverse, and endorsements from the management can only do damage.

The Rossiiskie Vesti weekly has a special feature on links between political parties and Russia’s most profitable business: the oil industry.

According to Rossiiskie Vesti, Russia’s fuel and energy companies may be provisionally categorized into two camps on the basis of political associations. One camp includes YUKOS, Sibneft, TNK, and LUKoil. The other includes Gazprom, Rosneft, Zarubezhneft, and to some extent Surgutneftegaz.

The general view is that the first set of companies is under the political patronage of the “Moscow Old Guard” faction in the Kremlin, led by Alexander Voloshin, head of the presidential administration. This faction also includes Voloshin’s deputy, Vladislav Surkov, as well as Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov.

This faction supports continued deregulation of the fuel and energy sector, and will lobby for this in the new Duma. This would mean a change of status for the second group – restructuring Gazprom and privatizing Rosneft and Zarubezhneft, the last state-owned companies.

The second set of companies is associated with a Kremlin faction usually known as the security people from St. Petersburg. This faction is said to be led by two of Voloshin’s deputies – Victor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov, as well as FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, and Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov.

This faction supports strengthening the role of the state in the fuel and energy sector. According to Rossiiskie Vesti, although the possibility of revising privatization outcomes is not being discussed openly right now, proposals to raise payments for the use of natural resources are fairly popular.

Understandably, the new composition of the federal legislature takes on a decisive significance in this situation.

Rossiskie Vesti says YUKOS was the first to recognize the need to have reliable levers of influence in parliament. One YUKOS shareholder, Vladimir Dubov, is currently a member of the Duma budget committee, chairing the taxation subcommittee – the field of greatest interest for an oil company. Essentially, says Rossiiskie Vesti, Dubov coordinates the Duma lobbying efforts of four companies: YUKOS, Sibneft, TNK, and LUKoil. It is said that YUKOS can easily collect the 226 votes required to pass a decision.

This, according to Rossiiskie Vesti, is precisely what Vladimir Putin had in mind when he once commented on the Duma’s rejection of a bill on natural resources rent payments: “Even milder laws are failing to pass these days, since those who have an interest in seeing them not pass are blocking them. And they are doing it effectively.”

Rossiiskie Vesti goes on to list all the candidates who are prepared to represent YUKOS interests in the new Duma, “despite the Kremlin’s displeasure at the YUKOS oil company’s active involvement in politics.” Besides the abovementioned Sergei Muravlenko and Konstantin Kagalovsky, there are around ten more such candidates. Rounding off the list is well-known Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov; Rossiiskie Vesti notes that “he is quite likely to unite the single-mandate Duma members who will be elected with the support of YUKOS.”

TNK’s lobby group in the Duma is no less substantial: the People’s Deputy group, headed by Gennadi Raikov. The electoral list of United Russia also includes several executives from TNK and its regional subsidiaries.

LUKoil also retains some influence in the Duma, though this is not what it used to be.

However, says Rossiiskie Vesti, Mikhail Khodorkovsky has the greatest interest in securing powerful lobbying capacities in parliament; oil is still his key asset, while Sibneft and TNK have assets in other sectors and other countries. According to Rossiiskie Vesti, the head of YUKOS will be the one fighting proposals from the security and law enforcement faction to impose “natural resources rent” – “at least until he sells all or part of YUKOS to a Western corporation.”

Thus, the current crackdown on YUKOS by security and law enforcement structures should probably be viewed as an attempt to prevent the political influence of Russia’s largest private oil company from increasing.

However, Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself takes a different view of the situation.

In an interview with Novaya Gazeta on October 20, the head of YUKOS described the Prosecutor General’s Office staff who are taking part in the current “war” on his company as nothing other than “werewolves in uniform.” Khodorkovsky said: “That phenomenon is not confined to the police force, no matter what we are being told – it is also found among prosecutors. And that is particularly unfortunate, since the Prosecutor General’s Office ought to be protecting citizens from incorrect application of the law.”

Khodorkovsky said he is absolutely certain that the Prosecutor General’s Office itself is breaking the law in this case, and that all its accusations against YUKOS and YUKOS executives are legally unfounded. As evidence, Khodorkovsky cited some figures: “Total oil company revenue in 2002 amounted to 57 billion rubles. Of this, 15 billion rubles was spent on oil extraction, refining, and sales. Another 9 billion rubles went to the railways as state transport tariffs. We paid 21 billion rubles in taxes and excises, leaving us with 12 billion rubles profit – and 10 billion rubles of that was spent on capital investment.”

Khodorkovsky emphasized that a substantial part of the YUKOS company’s tax payments was in the form of “specific taxes”, set especially for oil companies: “So when politicians raise an angry outcry about finally making oil companies pay natural resources rent, they display their complete ignorance of the existing situation.”

Khodorkovsky said that the president’s neutral stance, which is causing such agitation in the liberal media, can be readily explained: the president has no right to call a halt to an investigation if the prosecutor general assures him that there is substantial, solid evidence against a company or its executives. However, according to Khodorkovsky, the Prosecutor General’s Office needs to have a sense of responsibility; and if a three-month investigation has failed to produce any evidence that will stand up in court, “that means somebody might well be demoted soon.”

Khodorkovsky received an immediate and public response from Deputy Prosecutor General Yuri Biriukov. In an interview with the Interfax news agency (quoted in the Vedomosti newspaper) Biriukov said that Khodorkovsky will have to answer for the unlawful actions of YUKOS personnel: “A transparent company doesn’t conceal documents at orphanages and hastily-furnished Duma member offices. Doing so prompts the question: could this be stolen money?”

Buriukov promised that Khodorkovsky himself would be summoned for questioning, and that the new tax evasion case against Vasili Shakhnovsky would be forwarded to the courts by next week.

However, as Vedomosti reports, Khodorkovsky isn’t giving up either: “We are not disputing the right of the Prosecutor General’s Office to conduct an investigation, but its methods and the obvious fact that it is acting under orders.”

In short, the campaign battle continues. Leading economist Yevgeny Yasin, president of the Liberal Mission Foundation, told Novoe Vremya magazine: “All these searches and intimidation attempts are methods of destroying an opponent. Not physically, of course, but politically.”

Yasin says the best option for the authorities would be for Khodorkovsky to emigrate; this would mean he was completely giving up any political ambitions. “If he leaves, that means he’s guilty, that means he’s afraid.” The fact that emigration might be the result of monstrous amounts of pressure is another matter: “And that’s not important, since no one will ask questions afterwards.”

Khodorkovsky is resisting, saying he will not leave Russia. However, says Yasin, there has been a significant change in overall relations between business and government as a result of the YUKOS affair.

The attitude of business leaders to Putin has changed. They have become afraid. “The return of fear is the major consequence of this conflict.”

Actually, the business community will not fight; “it will simply stop investing in Russia, and there will be capital flight.” Essentially, “the regime has sent out a message: we can crush anyone at all if necessary. Now the oligarchs are keeping their heads down and waiting.”

Yet the Prosecutor General’s Office is also nervous. As the Vremya Novostei newspaper observes, “the security and law enforcement people are evidently embarrassed by the public’s unequivocal reaction.” Indeed, even though polls show that a significant proportion of Russian citizens dislike the oligarchs and tend to approve of the crackdown on YUKOS, “those individuals and bodies whose positions are truly important for the organizers of this campaign are united in their disapproval of the actions of the security and law enforcement agencies, as well as the inaction of their curator – President Putin.”

And that is why the security and law enforcement agencies are being forced to take more and more measures, increasing the number of people drawn into the investigation.

So another stage of the election campaign comes to an end in these somewhat tense circumstances. As Vremya Novostei reports, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, October 22, the Central Electoral Commission will stop registering candidates for the upcoming elections. Anyone who doesn’t make it by then will be too late.

But the process of strengthening democracy in Russia will continue.