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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Colorful Cast to Do Battle for Russia's Future

They've been called everything from a struggle over the future of Russia to a banal brawl between a few insiders after a cushy job and some nice perks.

But elections to the State Duma are just two months away - and when Russians choose their representatives to the lower house of parliament, they will be determining who makes the nation's laws and passes its budget for the next four years. They will also be holding a dress rehearsal for next summer's presidential elections - when the Kremlin itself will change hands.

Half of the Duma's 450 seats will be allocated according to national party lists - all of those parties who win at least 5 percent of the national vote will divide up those 225 seats among them, while the other parties will get nothing. The other 225 seats will be won seat-by-seat, in contests among individuals seeking to represent voting districts across Russia.

Like the 1995 election, the 1999 election promises a colorful cast of characters. Among the candidates competing for seats in the new Duma are Cabinet ministers and cosmonauts, a feminist author, an accused contract murderer, an Olympic wrestling champion, Stalin's grandson and the man who invented the Kalashnikov assault rifle.

And with President Boris Yeltsin constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, those performing well in the Dec. 19 parliamentary vote could be catapulted next into the Kremlin.

"This election is the beginning of a new political epoch," said Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

If so, one of the defining features of this new epoch is the emergence of Russia's regional leaders as perhaps the nation's most powerful class.

This can best be seen in what many analysts see as the political bloc to beat in December: Fatherland-All Russia, a collection of regional elites that is expected to be rivaled at the polls only by the unsinkable Communist Party of Gennady Zyuganov.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov formed Fatherland last year and then this summer, merged it with Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev's All Russia movement. The two then recruited former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to head the new bloc.

Luzhkov has repeatedly said that he has no plans to run for president, and Primakov has been coy on the matter. Nevertheless, few doubt that if Fatherland-All Russia does well in December, one of those two ambitious men will stand a good chance of taking over the Kremlin itself just months later.

The other horse to watch in this race is Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko - a liberal party that has stayed out of government at almost all levels except the Duma, and thus is not associated with the corruption and cronyism of the Yeltsin era.

Yabloko won 7 percent of the vote in the 1995 Duma elections. Polls now show them receiving anywhere from 7 percent to 15 percent this time, putting them in third place behind Fatherland-All Russia and the Communists.

"One of the most interesting and important questions in this election is how well Yabloko will do," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst at the Panorama research center. If Yabloko does well - winning, say, 15 percent of the vote - there is a chance for a new wave of economic and political reform in Russia, said Pribylovsky.

"If Yabloko significantly increases its representation in the Duma they will have room to maneuver and influence the situation," said Pribylovsky. "If not - if they win 7 percent like last time - we will have at least four more years of corrupt nomenklatura capitalism, with a small powerless democratic opposition."

Yabloko, the Communists and Fatherland-All Russia - all of these favorites are enemies of Yeltsin's administration. And none of the Kremlin's friends are expected to do well at the polls this winter.

Few expect the Our Home Is Russia party, which is lead by former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and is traditionally the Kremlin's closest ally, to even make it into the Duma - it is not likely to clear the 5 percent barrier.

Others who may founder on that 5 percent barrier include the Union of Right Wing Forces, which is headed by former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov; and even the flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his merry men of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

The LDPR - whose pro-government voting record has overshadowed Zhirinovsky's acerbic nationalistic rhetoric - was denied registration last week by the Central Electoral Commission, which claimed that several party members had lied on their property declarations. The party later managed to register as the Bloc of Zhirinovsky.

A hastily formed cheap imitation of Fatherland called Unity, headed by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu and comprised of regional leaders who have not yet allied themselves with Luzhkov and Primakov, is also unlikely to capture 5 percent of the national imagination.

The point of Unity, most analysts say, is less to get into the Duma on the national party list than it is to siphon votes away from Fatherland-All Russia. But even if Unity's national party list is a failure, the governors can influence the results of single-district elections.

Indeed, according to the Carnegie Center's Petrov, about 15 percent of Russia's 225 single mandate districts are completely under control of one regional leader or another. This means that some governors can essentially appoint their own people to parliament.

But again, it depends on who else is running in a given district - and there is always the wild card of celebrity star power. Fatherland-All Russia, for example, has recruited Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man who invented the machine gun that bears his name. Unity has Olympic wrestling champion Alexander Karelin as the No. 2 person on its national list. In one Moscow district, feminist author Maria Arbatova will be running against, among others, former Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov. And Yury Shutov, arrested in February and charged with organizing a series of contract murders, will run for a seat in St. Petersburg - from jail.

The election will also have its fair share of fringe parties.

This week, ultra nationalist bloc Spas, or Salvation, headed by Russian National Unity leader Alexander Barkashov, registered for the elections. The symbol of Barkashov's RNE is reminiscent of the Nazi Swastika, and the RNE platform advocates a dictatorial state dominated by ethnic Russians. On the far left, Viktor Anpilov's Stalinist Bloc for the U.S.S.R., which includes Stalin's grandson as a party leader, has also been registered.

The deadline for parties to turn in their candidate lists is October 24.