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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mavrodi's Got a Brand New Bag

Wunderkind, whiz-kid, genius, charlatan, shyster, cheat -- Sergei Mavrodi, jailed president of the beleaguered MMM investment company, has been called many things by his fans and detractors alike. Now he is seeking yet another sobriquet -- People's Deputy of the State Duma.

Better known among the electorate than many politicians already holding office, Mavrodi will be trying next month to turn his fame into votes at a Duma by-election in north Moscow. And according to a company spokesman, he has the backing of groups as diverse as the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, reformist Democratic Russia, and the non-denominational Beer Lovers Party.

"Mavrodi is supported by the entire political spectrum," said Sergei Taranov, MMM's press spokesman. "All layers of society are shareholders in MMM -- the company is apolitical, cutting across all political and social groups." His supporters are already collecting the necessary 10,000 signatures to secure his candidacy, Taranov said.

Mavrodi himself was unavailable for comment. He is currently residing in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailors' Rest) prison, awaiting trial on charges of massive tax evasion. His personal circumstances would alter dramatically if he managed to get elected -- members of the State Duma enjoy immunity from prosecution.

"He is fighting for his freedom," said Taranov.

Not all his alleged backers are as enthusiastic as Taranov suggested. Lev Ponomaryov, co-chairman of Democratic Russia, denied Monday that the group supported Mavrodi's candidacy.

"We issued a statement protesting his incarceration," said Ponomaryov. "We in no way support him politically.

A spokesman for Vladimir Zhirinovsky's notorious Liberal Democratic Party was a bit warmer. "Why shouldn't he be a deputy?" said Nikolai Podlepayev, the head of the LDPR's agitation department. "He's a smart guy, with a good head on his shoulders."

Zhirinovsky himself spoke out in support of Mavrodi at a gathering in the Moscow suburb of Mytishchi earlier this month.

And an organization calling itself the Shareholders Union of MMM has begun a signature campaign to get Mavrodi's name on the ballot. Many of the group's leaders have ties to the centrist Democratic Party of Russia.

But Taranov insisted that Mavrodi would not be part of any established political party. "What is his political platform? He stands for common sense -- in business, in politics, in life," he said. "He has been forced into politics by the short-sightedness and stupidity of the government."Mavrodi was arrested on Aug. 4, in the wake of the MMM crash. Shares in the popular investment scheme plummeted in value at the end of July from a high of 115,000 rubles ($51 ) to just 1,000 ($0.44 ).

But the maverick's popularity remains virtually undiminished, in spite of the large losses suffered by many Russians. When MMM offices opened for business again on August 22, thousands lined up to buy newly-printed "tickets" entitling them to a fraction of a company share.

Despite a government ban on advertising, and a stern warning to investors that the tickets were yet another scam, people seem to want desperately to believe that the MMM bubble has not really burst.

"MMM has given millions of people across Russia new hope, a new chance," said Taranov.

Many investors reaped fantastic profits on what was essentially a pyramid scheme. One shareholder, who asked not to be named, claimed that he had made $40,000 from the sale of 50,000 shares -- one-third of his total holdings.

"I will save the rest," he said. "I am sure that MMM will rise again."

Mavrodi himself is taking pains to clear his name and save the reputation of his company. In a full-page ad in Saturday's Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the entrepreneur heaped scorn on his detractors. He accused the government of incompetence: "The authorities ... once again have demonstrated their overwhelming ignorance and complete incompetence, and on a very high level."

He accused the press of cowardice, attributing the negative coverage he had received to an attempt to curry favor with the government: "Either the mass media is not as independent as we would like to think, or else our journalists are catastrophically deficient in courage."

Mavrodi insists that MMM is a legitimate company that has been able to provide its shareholders with incredibly high profits through its "dynamism, constant change of specialization, maximum secrecy and brilliant results."

Mavrodi is being proposed for the seat that belonged to the banker Andrei Aizderdzis, who was shot dead on April 26 ouside his apartment building in northwest Moscow. Police linked the murder with organized crime, but no arrests have been made.

Also rumored to be seeking election are former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, eye surgeon Svyatoslav Fyodorov, outspoken General Alexander Lebed, and entrepreneur Konstantin Borovoi.

Izvestia's Analysis Center estimates that Mavrodi's chances of winning the seat in the Oct. 30 by-elections are slight. But if he gathers enough signatures to get on the ballot, he will theoretically be entitled to immunity, and will be released from jail.

MMM's troubles may be spreading. Interfax reported Monday that the head of MMM's office in the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk was found dead of multiple stab wounds last Saturday.