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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reform, Nostalgia Pull Nizhny Voters

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Central Russia -- "People are really happy to see me here," said Grigory Yavlinsky, busily signing autographs for a small group of admirers Sunday evening.

One of those who timidly approached the head of the liberal Yabloko party identified herself as a member of the Women of Russia bloc, but confided that she planned to cast her vote for Yabloko in the Dec. 17 parliamentary elections.

"There are many strange ideas in people's heads in Nizhny," laughed Yavlinsky. "But I like it very much."

Yavlinsky descended on Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday morning, set to take the town by storm. In stark contrast to the low-key performances of other candidates, he plans a populist campaign barrage that will reach most of the residents of this region of 4 million.

"On Monday I will visit a hospital, where I will talk to the middle class, a factory, to reach the workers. I will have lunch with the political elite, hold a press conference for the media, and conduct a televised hotline where the people can call in their questions. I think that is enough for one day," he smiled.

Yavlinsky arrived one day early to attend a concert in honor of International Invalid Week. Apparently, however, his handlers neglected to inform the event's organizers of his intention of addressing the audience, composed largely of handicapped groups from the region.

The administration was a bit bewildered when journalists from all over the world converged on the Pushkin Opera House in the center of town, prepared to hang on the candidate's every word.

"Yavlinsky? Here?" repeated Olga Savina, of the mayor's press office. "I get all my information from the press," she laughed.

The response from the capacity crowd of approximately 1,500 was polite, but not overwhelming. There were even a few who booed, and shouts of "What is he doing here?" came from the back of the hall.

But Yavlinsky was unperturbed.

"My main goal here is to make Boris Nemtsov governor," he told journalists after his brief address to the audience, referring to the young, reformist, and extremely popular governor who faces an election on the same day as the Duma ballot. "He then will be an important part of my strategy for my presidential campaign."

Yavlinsky is one of the growing number of candidates who have declared their intention to run in the June 1996 presidential race.

Yavlinsky has deep roots in Nizhny Novgorod. He worked with Nemtsov on the region's privatization scheme, a project that, at least according to Yavlinsky, has made Nizhny Novgorod a reform success story.

"A consumption basket of basic necessities is 11 percent cheaper here relative to income," he said. "When we started three years ago, Nizhny was somewhere in the 30s among Russian cities for quality of life. Now it is number 16."

The official statistics tell a different story: Food production is down, heavy industry is in trouble, construction projects are being abandoned.

But Yavlinsky insists that while Nizhny Novgorod has not escaped the economic privation caused by the capital's policies, it is well ahead of where it would be otherwise.

Most residents seem to agree that the city is doing well. Shoppers at a central market Sunday morning were full of praise for their city and its reformist governor.

"I support Nemtsov, 100 percent," said Alexander Bulkin, 48, an engineer. He also leans toward casting his vote for the Communists in the party ballot, because "we lived more calmly then, people were satisfied. Now we have crime, everyone is afraid of being thrown out of work."

He sees no contradiction in supporting Nemtsov, a passionate anti-communist, while voting in a party that rejects everything Nemtsov has accomplished.

"People do not really understand what parties are all about," said Yavlinsky. "There was a political monopoly for too long."

The State Duma elections that have engulfed Moscow have taken a back seat to local contests in Nizhny Novgorod. There are very few party posters in town and little talk in the press about the parliamentary contest. There is, however, a great deal of interest in the mayoral and gubernatorial races, and both incumbents, twin reformers Nemtsov and Ivan Sklyarov, are expected to win.

"I have no quarrel with Nemtsov," said Anzhela Kuznetsova, 28, a housewife. "He has done a lot for the city, he has brought us order." He has also resumed payments to mothers with children, which has made Kuznetsova's life much easier, she said.

As for the parliamentary elections, Kuznetsova said she had not given the matter much thought.

"Moscow is very far away," she said.

Larisa Kalachova, 47, an engineer who works as a bookkeeper because her enterprise has ben shut down, was also full of praise for the young governor. "We do not have a bad life here," she said. "Our roads are good, for example." Kalachova said she would probably not vote for the Communists, but had not yet decided who she would support.

Yavlinsky is very much aware that the majority of voters will be making their choice in the last few days.

"It is much too early to predict who will win," he said.

Yavlinsky may be intending to capitalize on Nemtsov's high ratings to boost his own support in the region. Although Nemtsov has carefully maintained his independence in the elections, Yavlinsky said that the governor really supports Yabloko.

"On the day before the vote, Nemtsov and I will be together on the television screen, and we will say that we have common values," he said.