Fate of Seleznyov Is in U.S. Hands

A huge swathe of the Russian electorate will ignore this Sunday's elections as completely as the politicians will have ignored them throughout the course of the campaign.

Even though there are millions of Russians eligible to vote abroad, they will likely have a minor effect on the election results.

Except, perhaps, in one election district in St. Petersburg, where outgoing State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov is fighting for his political survival.

Although there are no official figures on how many Russians are eligible to vote abroad, the Foreign Ministry has calculated that there are a potential 1.177 million.

But this figure only counts those who have registered to vote in 339 special polling stations in 140 countries worldwide -- a figure far lower than the number of Russians who have emigrated in recent years, or of those left behind after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In Germany alone, there are 300,000 Russians registered at the embassy, but a spokesman said perhaps three times that number of emigre Russians live in the country.

In Britain, where an estimated 200,000 Russians can vote in London or Edinburgh, there has been little excitement or campaigning for the election, said Natalya Chouvaeva, editor of the Russian-language London Courier. Other expatriates contacted in Britain and Germany agreed that turnout is expected to be low.

A small part of the reluctance comes from older Russians still wary of going to the old Soviet Embassy.

"Some people are [still] afraid to go to the embassy," Chouvaeva said, adding that while it was a hangover from Soviet times, the real reason was a lack of campaigning activity for the elections.

"It's just because we don't hear from them, we're left alone," Chouvaeva said. "There's no campaigning. If I were approached, I'm sure I would go to vote."

Analysts said that most Russian politicians have yet to realize the value of courting Russian emigres.

Russian voters abroad are generally seen as more liberal than the electorate back home, with proportionately more support for parties such as Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, or SPS.

SPS was the only party to have a representative in London -- Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., the son of the famous television journalist who is running for the Duma in Moscow.

"They would get proportionately more votes here than in an ordinary Russian region," Chouvaeva said.

One exception to the overall expatriate apathy could be the United States, where Russians living in or visiting the country this weekend will be able to vote, and perhaps play a crucial role in deciding whether Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov makes it into the next parliament.

Seleznyov, until recently a Communist Party member, is battling against SPS co-leader Irina Khakamada, to represent the 468,000 voters of District No. 209 in St. Petersburg. The seat was once held by the well-known reformist deputy Galina Starovoitova, who was murdered in November 1998.

But Seleznyov and Khakamada will also be fighting for the votes of an indeterminate number of Russians in the United States, in the first election where expatriate votes will be counted toward single-mandate districts, as well as for the party list elections.

While the Petersburgers of District No. 209 will have to share their single-mandate election with their stateside countrymen, Russians in Britain will vote in Preobrazhenskaya, District No. 199 in the Tulskaya region. Meanwhile the expatriate vote in Germany will be spread over a number of districts, depending on whether Russians vote in the embassy or one of the consulates.

"This is all laid out in the [2003 election] law," said Mikhail Savchenko, a press officer for the Central Elections Commission. "It's on page 53, listed in detail -- which district gets which country, right down to countries such as Zimbabwe and Uganda."

In some areas, votes from a number of countries are collated, such as in the Moscow region's Serpukhovskoi district, where Russian citizens living in Chad (all 25 of those registered) will join those in Norway (891), Jamaica (35) and Hungary (2,794) in the same voting district.

Valery Shchetinin, deputy head of the Foreign Ministry's elections commission, said that Russians abroad will cast their ballots as in Russia, from 8.a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday local time, wherever they are in the world. But in a number of countries in the Muslim world, voting will begin Friday and Saturday, as Sunday is a nonworking day, he said.

When ballots close, the votes are counted and the results faxed to the Foreign Ministry, from where they are sent to the Central Elections Commission.

So how many Russian voters are there in America, anyway? Yevgeny Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said he's had consular officials working on that very riddle.

The answer? "They say it's almost impossible to figure out," he said.

In fact, no one seems to keep track. And there is no registering to vote beforehand: Anyone who shows up at a polling station in Washington, New York, San Francisco or Houston waving a maroon Russian Federation passport gets a ballot.

Khorishko, who sits on the elections commission governing Russians voting in the United States, cited two contradictory figures. A report by the U.S. State Department says the metropolitan area of Miami alone is home to some 300,000 Russian-speaking residents (though not all are voting-age Russian citizens). But in the 1999 Duma elections, about 3,000 Russians voted in the entire United States, Khorishko said.

With estimates ranging between 300,000 in Miami alone to 3,000 in the whole country, a compromise figure has somehow been arrived at -- 40,000. That's the figure listed on the Central Elections Commission web site, and it's the number bandied about by the Khakamada and Seleznyov campaigns.

"Forty thousand [voters]!" says Sergei Gaidii, a spokesman for Khakamada's campaign. "This is a fantastic situation. If they all come and vote, that could be 10 percent of the ballot box. And this when a close election could be decided, not by thousands of votes, but by hundreds."

"Yes, there's 40,000 votes, so it will play a significant role," agreed Sergei Kostarnoi, Seleznyov's press secretary.

But the 40,000 figure may be a touch optimistic. At the last election, only a tenth of that number turned out, with a similar apathy and cynicism found in the United States as in Russia.

"The campaign has not been fair so far, and Russian society is almost indifferent to the elections," said Dmitry Gavrilin, a student at Harvard University. "Most media are controlled by Putin's administration, while liberal parties are inactive and unpopular. The presidential elections are going to be much more important."

Khakamada's team says it is not running a special American campaign. But Seleznyov is, complete with leaflets, free 2004 photo calendars of himself, and a large spread in the New York newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo.

There, Seleznyov playfully styles himself a child of the pokoleniye babibumerov (the Baby Boom generation), talks of his fondness for Americans and Israelis, and his hatred of stereotypes about Communists.

"We have prepared a whole campaign program for America," Kostarnoi said.

Edward Lozansky, a prominent member of the Russian emigre community in Washington and publisher of the Kontinent newspaper, said what effect the U.S. vote has is completely up to the turnout on the day.

"Last time, the American vote was kind of spread out, it wasn't concentrated into one district, so no one cared. But now, because it's all in one district, everyone's excited.

"You could have 100,000 [voters], 200,000 -- nobody knows. But it'll be substantial, and especially if it's a close vote -- well, you remember what happened in Florida."