. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deputies Charge Voters Coerced

The first scandal of the campaign for June's presidential polls erupted Wednesday, when a dozen State Duma deputies accused government officials of coercing state employees to back President Boris Yeltsin's still undeclared re-election bid.

The Duma also tried to question the legitimacy of a special committee to prepare for the elections, headed by First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets. The committee is widely understood to be organizing Yeltsin's own re-election campaign, although he has not yet declared his candidacy.

But the deputies were thwarted by a legal hitch: The committee does not officially exist, although Yeltsin publicly announced its creation and neither Yeltsin aides nor Soskovets are denying its existence.

A number of deputies, mostly members of the Communist Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, alleged that officials of the Railroad Ministry, who formed one of the six support groups for Yeltsin registered by the Central Election Commission, were forcing railroad workers to sign lists in Yeltsin's support. A candidate for the presidency has to gather 1 million signatures to be put on the ballot.

"I have heard from my constituents who work on the railroad that the head of their depot made them sign under threat of firing or non-payment of wages," said LDPR member Yevgeny Loginov. Other deputies said they heard similar reports from regions as far apart as Bryansk in southwestern Russia to Tyumen in Siberia.

Alexander Ivanchenko, deputy chairman of the Central Election Commission, who Sergei Bogatko denied there had been any official orders from the minister to collect the signatures. "It was just representatives from regional railroads gathering in Moscow and deciding to set up this group to support Yeltsin. I do not know where these reports of coercion come from," he said.

Workers at Moscow branches of the railroad confirmed that the signature collection was going on.

"I signed and everybody who wanted to signed as well," said a telephone operator with the Smolenskoye branch, who only gave her name as Svetlana. "It was voluntary: You've got to vote for people who are already in power, because at least you know them."

But the Duma deputies insisted the workers were being pressured to sign, and they blamed Soskovets for organizing the campaign. The Railroad Ministry is one of 14 that Soskovets supervises in the government, and workers from the other industries that Soskovets runs -- including a large metallurgists' trade union -- have urged Yeltsin to run. Soskovets recently announced that the workers of several dozen large factories had called on Yeltsin to put forward his candidacy.

"It was Soskovets' committee that ordered the railroad minister to gather the signatures," alleged senior Communist deputy Anatoly Lukyanov. "These are not isolated facts but a whole system."

The Duma last week called on Soskovets to explain the goals of his committee to the chamber, but the powerful deputy prime minister preferred to meet one-on-one with the Duma speaker, Communist Gennady Seleznyov. When they met Monday, Soskovets explained that there was no presidential decree setting up the committee and therefore the Duma had nothing to discuss.

The Central Election Commission went through a similar experience when it queried the government about the committee's status, Ivanchenko said. A letter the commission received from the government's deputy chief of staff said that officials were not aware of any document outlining the committee's powers and duties.

"You were looking in the wrong place," deputy Ruslan Gostev told Ivanchenko. "Everyone who reads the newspapers knows the committee was set up by the presidential structures."

"This committee is no myth -- it exists," Lukyanov added.

Yeltsin's aides admit as much, and they make no secret of the fact that the committee's main goal is to help Yeltsin.

"Its goal is to help the president to nominate a candidate whose political views do not contradict the guidelines of the Constitution," Yeltsin's legal adviser Mikhail Krasnov was quoted as saying by the daily Segodnya.

?A group of Communists in the State Duma have proposed legislation calling for a return to Soviet-era price controls, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The measure, which was reportedly rejected, envisages freezing prices for staple food, utilities and rent and was prepared by a group of Communist Party legislators.