Copyright 2002 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com

Russian ballots offer parliament of tycoons
Steven Lee Myers/NYT
Tuesday, December 2, 2003
Big executives fill major party tickets
 
MOSCOW In the United States, the relationship between big business and politics may be cozy; in Russia, it is fast becoming intimate.

The nation's largest businesses - including oil giants, banks and manufacturers - not only have poured money into the parliamentary elections to be held on Sunday but also have filled party tickets with dozens of their own executives. Yukos Oil, whose former chairman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is in prison on charges widely viewed as politically motivated, has executives running as candidates not only for the liberal Yabloko party but also for the Communists and for United Russia, the party loyal to President Vladimir Putin.

The prosecutorial assault on Khodorkovsky - one of a cadre of wealthy businessmen known derisively here as oligarchs - has been seen as a broader assault on big business in Russia. But in fact, big business seems to be exerting greater influence in Russian politics, not less. While the popularity of Putin and United Russia appear to have been strengthened by the investigation of Khodorkovsky, the party has its own candidates from prominent companies controlled by other oligarchs. Two oil companies, TNK and Lukoil, have executives running on the party's ticket, as do Russian Aluminum and the steel giant Severstal. An analysis of United Russia's national and regional party lists by The Moscow Times showed that more than a quarter of United Russia's parliamentary candidates represented big businesses.

Perhaps to hedge its bet, TNK also has a spot on the Communist ticket, while Russian Aluminum's deputy general director is running as a candidate for the Liberal Democratic Party, led by the strident nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Twelve years after the collapse of the Soviet one-party state, big business has become by far the most influential force in Russia's elections today. Besides providing money and candidates, businesses have also profoundly altered party platforms and, in some cases, turned traditional ideologies upside down. "There is not a single large company in Russia that is not involved in politics," said Boris Fyodorov, a former deputy prime minister and banker who is running for a seat from southeast Moscow and representing a small party, Russia Forward. The election Sunday, in which 23 parties are vying for all 450 seats of the lower house of Parliament, represents a critical turn for Russia and for Putin, who is universally expected to win a second term in the presidential election next March.

Although not officially a member of any party, Putin has thrown his power and popularity behind United Russia. The most recent example was on Friday, in which he said in broadcast remarks that a centrist majority led by the party was essential to the economic and bureaucratic reforms he had vowed to pursue in a second term.

Regardless of which party wins the most seats, the nation's largest companies appear certain to be well represented in the Parliament, gaining enough influence to propose or block legislation affecting corporate interests, from taxes to regulating natural resources.

Dmitri Orlov, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, predicted that executives would win more than 20 percent of the Parliament's 450 seats. Another 40 percent of the seats could end up in the hands of what he called "hidden lobbyists," candidates supported by businesses to protect the interests of specific industries.

"It is not a new phenomenon," Orlov said of the role of businesses in Russia's politics. "It was known in 1995 and 1999, but it has only achieved such a scale in this election." Khodorkovsky's efforts to influence Parliament, particularly in blocking a new law on oil production this year, are widely viewed as a catalyst for the charges of tax evasion and fraud that landed him in a Moscow prison. Khodorkovsky also openly contributed money to two liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, in an attempt to create a solid bloc of deputies opposed to Putin.

Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of Yabloko, acknowledged in a recent television interview that the party had included three Yukos executives on its federal party list as a condition of Khodorkovsky's contributions.

Khodorkovsky's many critics have accused him of trying to buy a controlling majority.

The extent of executives' participation in the election has been made known by a new law requiring candidates to declare their incomes and employers. If elected, executives are required to resign from their companies, but they can keep their shares and other holdings, and analysts say that many sever their ties only nominally. Few of the candidates and their parties are actively publicizing their ties to some of the nation's biggest companies. In a country where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, running as a rich, successful businessman appears to have little populist appeal.

Several prominent executives running for Parliament refused to be interviewed about their candidacies. They included the deputy general director of Russian Aluminum, Yevgeny Ivanov, who is running on the Liberal Democrats' ticket, and three executives on United Russia's: Vyacheslav Timchenko, the vice president of TNK; Viktor Rashnikov, general director of Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine; and Georgy Shevtsov, a director of Severstal. Ilyaz Muslimov, a businessman who is also running for United Russia, said a clear line should be drawn between politicians and business executives. Although he is a newspaper publisher and president of a pulp-and-paper company called Papyrus, he said that a businessman should "mind his own business." He said he would step down from his company if elected. "I think everyone should mind his own business," he said. "A journalist should write. A doctor should heal."

The Communist Party, in particular, has found itself on the defensive because of its embrace of business. State controlled television has featured critical stories of the executives on its ticket.

One of them is Aleksei Kondaurov, who occupies the 13th spot on the Communist Party's national list. Because half of the Parliament's seats are proportioned based on parties' total votes, with the other half chosen by individual districts, Kondaurov is virtually assured election. He is also an executive of Yukos-Moscow, the oil company's main subsidiary.

It is one measure of the ideological upheaval in Russian politics that he argues that the Communist Party is now the party of business. "Today's Communist Party does not reject private property," he said. "It does not reject the mechanisms for market development. The Communist Party is for the strengthening of democratic institutions and the development of civil society."

Kondaurov, a former KGB officers who is the son of scientists in the Soviet space program, said the prosecution of Khodorkovsky and Yukos proved that Putin and United Russia favored greater state control over the interests of the nation's private enterprises.

Still, Kondaurov's and other executives' candidacies have exposed deep divisions within a party still struggling to formulate a post-Soviet message.

Leonid Mayevsky, a Communist deputy in the current Parliament, publicly criticized the party at a news conference this month, saying that 28 percent of its candidates were millionaires.

"Is this the party of the people or of the millionaires?" he asked.

He was promptly expelled from the party.

The New York Times

Copyright 2002 The International Herald Tribune