Britain Leaves Traces on Lugovoi's Campaign

ReutersLugovoi addressing a small crowd of mostly elderly voters in the town of Mansurovo, near Kursk, on Thursday. The event capped a one-day tour of the region.
KURSK -- Standing directly opposite a raised profile of Lenin on a pink wall, Andrei Lugovoi was out meeting the voters late Thursday in a day of fitful campaigning.

"A year ago I was an unknown, but then the Brits made me famous," Lugovoi told a crowded hall in the village of Mansurovo.

Lugovoi was speaking to the elderly crowd, wrapped up in their coats in the unheated hall, at the end of his day on the hustings in and around Kursk in southwest Russia on the eve of the anniversary of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a dissident and former FSB officer whose poisoning has driven a huge wedge between Britain and Russia.

The Litvinenko affair is to thank for Lugovoi's newfound role as a politician -- No. 2 on the LDPR federal list -- and has usually overshadowed his campaign appearances, although few voters here seemed to know much about him or care about Litvinenko's death.

For the reporters at a news conference after the campaign stop Litvinenko was still the big story, so Lugovoi again repeated his allegations that the accusations against him were a plot involving the British special services. This was likely old hat already for most in England, but his comments on a more sensitive subject -- the English national team's failure to qualify for the European Championship -- were likely to hit closer to home.

"As for yesterdays match," he said "I want to congratulate British football, as the British teams will have a great chance to train now for the next European championship."

England lost 3-2 to Croatia on Wednesday, which means that, with Russia's victory over Andorra, Russia rather than England will play in next year's European Championships. The other British nations -- Scotland and Wales -- also failed to qualify.

"I'd like to offer some football fields, so they will be stronger on northern pitches," he said, suggesting that the "English millionaire footballers" could come and play in Murmansk or Arkhangelsk. "Please go and train there and for the next European championship they will be better prepared."

Lugovoi said he received a number of text messages after Russia beat England 2-1 in October, telling him that the victory was for him.

When the subject wasn't cloak, dagger or football games, he was less sure of himself, saying he didn't know what his life would be like as a State Duma deputy.

"I don't know what I will do," he said.

The locals weren't much clearer on him as a candidate.

"Lugovoi?" asked Viktor, 56, who was selling sunflower seeds outside the hotel where Lugovoi was speaking, his forehead creasing as he thought. "Something to do with England?"

Even after a bit of prompting, Viktor, who would not give his last name, was not impressed.

"It will get the party a certain percent [of the vote], but what will it do for the people?" he asked, comparing the LDPR to a dog that barks at a passing car, but really has no plans to do anything about it.

According to Oleg Savelyev, spokesman for the Levada Center polling agency, Lugovoi probably won't help the party much.

"More than likely, they won't reach seven percent," Savelyev said. "The LDPR lost a large percentage of their constituency when [President Vladimir] Putin agreed to head Unity Russia's party list."

LDPR support had been running at about 11 percent before Putin's announcement.

"The No. 2 on the list never makes any difference," said Savelyev. "[Party leader Vladimir] Zhirinovsky is all important in the LDPR."

Out on the campaign trail Thursday, Lugovoi kept plugging along.

Earlier in the day, he drove 85 kilometers to a cattle farm -- as yet with no cattle -- to spend 10 minutes hearing how some money he had invested there was being spent, before jumping back in his Nissan SUV to keep making the rounds.

Lugovoi spent less than 15 minutes speaking to a group of LDPR voters who had waited for 3 hours in a small store packed full of televisions, refrigerators and stereo systems in the village of Solntsevo. He promised to badger the local government to put in a toilet in the local school, where children now have to walk 300 meters to go to the bathroom. He also handed over 20,000 rubles, or about $822, to help with treatment for a girl with leukemia.

Giving out money was nothing new for him in the village. Lugovoi has already promised to donate 1 million rubles, or about $41,000, which he received as a settlement in a libel case he filed against Kommersant, to a small orphanage there. He told those who had come out to meet him that the money would be delivered after the election.

Igor Bredikhin, the local LDPR leader, has a portrait of himself with Zhirinovsky -- a present from his wife, Natalie -- hanging on the wall in his office. He says that there are about 40 LDPR supporters in the village of 35,000, adding that United Russia controls the local council and newspaper, which helps them corral the electorate.

Like just about everyone else, however, Bredikhin can't talk about Lugovoi's candidacy for long before returning to the scandal with Britain.

"Many have not heard of Lugovoi," Bredikhin said, "but when you mention Polonium and Litvinenko ..."

"It is rubbish," said Natalie Bredikhina, 30, of the accusations that Lugovoi poisoned Litvinenko's tea. "If they all drank, then how come they weren't all poisoned?"