RUSSIA’S NEW LEGISLATURE PROMISES TO RE CHAOTIC AND FRACTIOUS
RUSSIA’S NEW LEGISLATURE PROMISES TO RE CHAOTIC AND FRACTIOUS
Three months after reformist President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the old Communist-dominated parliament and called an election, Russians dutifully trudged to the polls last week to elect a new legislature. But voters did not give pro-Yeltsin political blocs the support they had expected. Preliminary results of the Dec. 12 election, which the head of Canada’s 21-member observer team, Liberal MP Warren Allmand, termed “fair and free,” showed anti-reform parties dominating the 450-seat lower house of parliament. The biggest: Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party. From among the 13 parties that contested the
race—which included democrats, feminists and fascists—Maclean’s Moscow Bureau Chief Malcolm Gray profiles three new legislators who have competing visions of Russia. His report:
Inside the Moscow headquarters of the extremist Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Picholkin calmly explained the appeal of a would-be dictator. “When I was young, as far back as 1985 under Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika, I was against what was happening,” he said. “I knew that those so-called reforms would lead to the breakup of the Soviet Union, crime, widespread disorder and Russia’s current humiliating position in the world.” At 26, Picholkin is a leader of the Liberal Democrats’ youth organization—and, as of last week, a newly elected member of the country’s state assembly. He is also confident that his party’s leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, will end Russia’s flirtation with democracy by succeeding Boris Yeltsin as president (page 46). Gesturing to a campaign picture of Zhirinovsky over the slogan “I will raise
Russia up off her knees,” Picholkin added: “There will be no improvement under the present government during the next two years. And when the presidential elections are held, we will win.”
Picholkin said that he plans to spend his time in parliament fighting to re-establish nationwide groups modelled on the Soviet-era Young Pioneer and Communist Youth organizations. He also wants new laws and strong enforcement to stamp out such worsening problems as prostitution and pornography. “But if it were only a matter of wiping out prostitution and pornography, life would be simple,” he said. 'Those are serious problems, but they are only signs of the growing disorder in our society.”
Apart from responding to a widespread longing for order, Zhirinovsky and his followers have skillfully appealed to nationalist feelings bruised by the Russian loss of two empires: former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe and the 14 other republics that made up the U.S.S.R. Sitting beneath a map of the old union, Picholkin calmly asserted that
Russia would one day include all former Soviet territory. “Many Russians now think that way,” he said. “My father and I argue all the time about politics—he is still a Communist and would like to see the Soviet Union restored. I don’t agree with that, but we both want to see Russia become great again.”
Before turning to politics, Picholkin served in the army as a senior sergeant and worked briefly in a factory that manufactured light fixtures. Millions of Russians with similar backgrounds have turned to the Liberal Democrats to register their protest at the shrinking of the once-mighty Red Army and the dramatic decline in the country’s industrial production. But unlike the homeless army officers and unemployed workers who have pushed his party to prominence, Picholkin candidly acknowledged that he has suffered few hardships. “I have always had a nice life,” he said, adjusting a sleeve of his well-tailored blue suit. “My father is an economist and we—my wife and 10-monthold daughter—share a three-room apartment with my parents in a good area.”
In addition, Picholkin has inherited a oneroom apartment from his grandmother and his wife, Tatiana, a former editor, also owns a three-room apartment in Moscow. Understandably, he claimed not to worry about the fact that no one seems to know if the new deputies will get more, or less, than the $100 monthly salary received by the members of the old legislature. As for the other benefits that accompanied membership in that now-dissolved assembly—perks that included state apartments, free transportation, cheap suits from Romania and subsidized haircuts—Picholkin shook his sleekly coiffured head. “Out-of-town deputies should get apartments,” he said. “But those deputies who allowed the government to pay for their suits had no respect for themselves.”
In a postelection news conference last week, a tuxedo-clad Zhirinovsky took pains to appear moderate and unthreatening, even mixing a few weak jokes into his usual strident rhetoric. Inviting the new Women of Russia movement to work with his party in the legislature, he said: “In our cabinet we have a number of intelligent, handsome men who are in good shape, in all senses.”
Lyudmila Zavadskaya visibly wrinkled her nose as she considered Zhirinovsky’s remark. Then, she wearily dismissed it as simply another of the heavy-handed statements that male Russian politicians are prone to make about women. As a member of the country’s first political organization for women, she spent much of the short three-
week-long election campaign stressing that Women of Russia was a force for social reform—as opposed to a political party made up solely of women. “We are independent and centrist,” said Zavadskaya, 44, a pert, articulate lawyer who, unlike many of her movement colleagues, calls herself a feminist. ‘We will join with whatever party seems likely to help us achieve the reforms we are seeking.”
Widely dismissed as a fringe group with a vague platform, Women of Russia in fact polled more votes than several so-called democratic blocs. For Zavadskaya, those results represent a breakthrough in a maledominated society where women politicians are still rare. Said Zavadskaya: “Russia has always been a patriarchal country, but many young families—husbands as well as wives—supported us because we offered the hope of something new and better, social programs that would protect women, single mothers, pensioners and the poor.”
Impatient for the new parliament to open early in the new year, Zavadskaya wants to scrap Soviet-era laws that could be used to force women out of the job market—no idle threat when a Yeltsin cabinet member, labor minister Gennady Melikyan, has suggested that working women should stay home to relieve male unemployment. Said Zavadskaya: “One still-valid law forbade women to work at night on the ground that such shifts were bad for them. No one bothered to enforce that law under the old regime—but they might now, in order to drive women back into the kitchen.”
Zavadskaya is anticipating that her salary as a deputy will be higher than the $53 per month that she receives as a lawyer at a state-funded institution. “It could hardly be worse,” she said. “Fortunately, my husband works for a private firm, so we now say that he has the money while I have the political power.” But she, like the Liberal Democrats’ Picholkin, is also against lavish perks for legislators. And she insisted that she would not accept any offer of a state-owned apartment—even though her flat in a distant suburb is a one-hour commute by subway and bus from the centre of Moscow.
But overshadowing her eagerness to help shape Russia’s future is the realization that the new parliament will be a chaotic, fractious place marked by confrontation and constantly shifting alliances. “For the next two years, I see nothing but political instability in our country,” she said. And after that? “More instability.” Given Russia’s sudden and dramatic swerve towards extreme nationalism last week, a newly alarmed world, many of her fellow countrymen and Zavadskaya herself can only hope that her prediction is wrong.
Live from the Kremlin, it was intended to be a postelection TV special, featuring political foes celebrating a new political era. And the sponsors ofthat champagne-splashed broadcast were private enterprisers who were expecting a victory for Russia’s Choice, the country’s leading proreform bloc. But when computerized voting results showed strong support for Zhirinovsky’s nationalists, the gala event quickly lost its fizz. As so-called democrats squabbled and criticized each other before the cameras, Zhirinovsky demanded that prominent Russia’s Choice members seated nearby be dismissed from the cabinet. Billed as a night of reconciliation, that ill-starred program instead turned out to be a forecast of more political turmoil for Russia.
Andrei Nuikin was a reluctant volunteer for frontline duty in Russia’s political wars. At 63, the veteran editor and publicist would have preferred to man his customary post in a series of liberal causes stretching back into the Communist era: working for change behind the scenes. But when Russia’s Choice organizers urged him to stand for office, he answered the call. Nuikin did so, he said, in the belief that he would be part of a pro-reform majority in parliament. Now, with Yeltsin supporters a minority in a badly splintered assembly, he is awaiting his new job with forbearance. Said Nuikin: “I have never much liked the idea of being a deputy—now more than ever. But this is certainly
not the time to avoid that responsibility.”
With his flowing white hair and a matching beard, Nuikin could easily pass for Ded Maroz (Grandfather Frost), the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus. He could have exploited that image on the cam« paign trail. But he 2j much preferred a I more cerebral ap5 proach to election| eering: writing or
0 broadcasting pro-
1 Yeltsin articles instead of knocking on doors in search
of voter support. Said Nuikin: “Unlike Western politicians, we don’t often go around kissing babies here.”
Nuikin had planned to spend his time in parliament entrenching and strengthening Russians’ right to own land. Now, he and other pro-reform deputies have set their sights on a more urgent goal: forming an antinationalist coalition that could include Communists. Said Nuikin: “Everyone used to be a Communist here. We should forget about non-essential contradictions and form a united front against the threat of fascism.” He added: “Zhirinovsky is unpredictable. And if he were to become leader of Russia—which is still a nuclear power, remember—there would be grave consequences for our country and the world.”
Nuikin the reformer, Zavadskaya the feminist and Picholkin the ultranationalist are newcomers to the arena of Russian politics, each with differing plans and hopes for the country’s future. But who fails and who succeeds in attaining their goals is also of special interest to the rest of the world. □
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