WORLD

Sex, TV and nostalgia

The parliamentary campaign is a contest of image makers

MALCOLM GRAY December 18 1995
WORLD

Sex, TV and nostalgia

The parliamentary campaign is a contest of image makers

MALCOLM GRAY December 18 1995

Sex, TV and nostalgia

The parliamentary campaign is a contest of image makers

WORLD

RUSSIA

The camera zooms in on a couple lying in bed. As the man attempts to embrace his companion, the woman rebuffs him, voicing a preference for Vladimir Zhirinovsky. All others, she says, are disgusting.

That bedroom scene is one of a series of steamy plugs for Zhirinovsky’s misnamed Liberal Democratic Party, dramatizing a desire that the ultranationalist leader hopes will be echoed by some 105 million potential voters across Russia on Dec. 17. With 43 different political groups seeking support in elections to the Duma, or lower house of parliament, soft-porn ads are the

latest attention-getting device for a man whose popularity is waning. Zhirinovsky was the first Russian party politician to grasp television’s impact in a country spanning 11 time zones. But his explosive outbursts and widely publicized antics—such as a fistfight in parliament with a woman deputy—have turned many former supporters against him. Now, two years after

his unexpected triumph in the last parliamentary elections, the airwaves are crowded with similar rightist political messages—and other former outsiders are coming to the fore. As election day drew closer, polls showed that a wider, if disunited, group of nationalist and Communist forces is likely to dominate the Duma. The leader of Russia’s main liberal bloc, Yabloko (Apple), ruefully agrees. Says Grigory Yavlinsky: “The democrats will be in a minority.”

TV is not for everyone. While most parties are relying on imidzhmeikeri (image makers), the resurgent Communists have limited their ads to a few clips of woodentongued leader Gennady Zyuganov haranguing party faithful through a bullhorn. Instead, the Communists are betting on the forces of history—they believe that economic and social upheavals as well as widespread nostalgia for the order of the Soviet era have made conditions ripe for a return to power. And to get out the vote of pensioners and workers who see little benefit in Russia’s rough-hewn capitalism, the party has a disciplined army of 50,000 members that is by far the largest political organization in the country.

At stake is control of a 450-seat chamber that has little power under a constitution that Russian President Boris Yeltsin practically dictated after shelling rebellious deputies into submission two years ago. Virtually all party officials describe the parliamentary campaign as a dress rehearsal for the contest that really matters: presidential elections set for June. And with Yeltsin recovering from recent heart problems at a sanatorium outside Moscow—and silent on his political future—a good showing now is essential for anyone dreaming of taking his place.

That requirement has left Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in the awkward posi-

tion of an heir apparent who cannot seem too eager to fill the boss’s chair. In addition to his position as Yeltsin’s number two, Chernomyrdin is the leader of the so-called party of power, the pro-government legislative bloc, Our Home is Russia. To be sure, Our Home does not have the angry army of proletarians now marching under the Communist banner. But large infusions of money from Russia’s new business class, the key beneficiaries of Yeltsin’s reform policies, have made Chernomyrdin’s face practically omnipresent on nationwide TV ads and billboards throughout Moscow.

Those cash reserves allowed Our Home to fork out $1.4 million for airtime during the last two weeks of November, outspending Zhirinovsky. But Our Home’s slick, image-driven campaign has also encountered some rocky moments. Chernomyrdin’s pose in party illustrations, for instance, with his steepled hands evoking a protective roof, has become an object for political satire. At a time when all parties are publicly concerned about crime and corruption in Russia, roof is a slang term for so-called protection money.

Our Home’s nationalist and Communist rivals hardly need that embarrassing association to attack the spread of corruption during the Yeltsin era. One of the most powerful TV ads for a nationalist bloc led by Alexander Lebed—an outspoken and widely popular former general—shows a man passing a wad of bills across a desk to a bureaucrat. As the official accepts the cash, a prison door slams and Lebed’s distinctive bass-drum voice is heard growling: “I strongly advise you not to.”

Lebed’s Congress of Russian Communities is among the nationalist parties that Yavlinsky predicts will gain at least five per cent of the popular votes cast, the cutoff point needed for a party to enter the Duma. The Communists, centrist blocs including Our Home and a few reform groupings like Yabloko should also get over the hurdle— and probably Zhirinovsky. Few are likely to form lasting alliances, and no single leader seems set to emerge. A majority will probably hold a vague commitment to restoring the Soviet Union’s former glory—and even its political structure.

Their only significant powers, however, will be confirmation of the prime minister—which Yeltsin can get around by making his ally Chernomyrdin “acting” PM— and approval of the budget, which does provide some bargaining power with the Kremlin. The ailing Yeltsin will also be deprived of one traditional big stick against a bloody-minded parliament: his constitution bars the president from dissolving a new Duma during its first year. That alone promises to make the run-up to the presidential election even more rambunctious than the political ads now playing on the nation’s home screens.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow