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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Want a Spot on a Party's Election List? Pay Up!




A Russian political boss, sitting down in seclusion to put together his party's list of candidates for December's parliamentary elections, scratches his head and seeks that perfect blend that spells success. He wants a few candidates who bring celebrity to the ticket, perhaps a general or two, a couple of women, a Jew or a Moslem - and then a trainload of others who might be thought of as the paying passengers.


Political parties here typically make ends meet by selling slots on their lists of candidates.


The beauty of it is, there are plenty of people who, for a variety of reasons, are only too happy to join up. The hottest ticket in town these days is the political one.


When Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, put an aluminum company president, who happens to be wanted by the police right now, in the No. 2 spot on his party list, the rumor was that the executive had paid $5 million for the privilege. That list, in the end, was disallowed by the Central Election Commission, so Zhirinovsky put together a new one, presumably at new and improved prices.


Other slots command less. The newspaper Argumenty i Fakty reported last week that a would-be candidate for the Fatherland-All Russia bloc was said to have made a "symbolic" payment of just $250,000.


"This is a hidden form of financing," said Vladimir Rimsky, an analyst with the Indem Foundation, which is devoted to the development of democracy in Russia. "It's practically impossible to prove, and it's a way for businessmen to pay for services they received or hope to receive in the future."


Half of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, is chosen from districts, and the other half is seated according to the percentage of votes each party receives. A party ranks its candidates. If it wins enough votes to put 15 members into the Duma, for example, the top 15 names on its list get the nod.


Each party can put forward as many as 450 candidates, counting both categories, and that's a lucrative business.


Georgy Boos was responsible for putting together the list for the Fatherland-All Russia group, and his colleagues, Argumenty i Fakty reported, described him as the man who "filtered the bazaar."


Vladimir Lysenko, a member of the Duma, had been on Boos' at-large list, but then word came to him that it had too many Muscovites on it, and he was persuaded to withdraw. He chose to run instead in a Moscow district. All was well, he said Thursday, until one day he discovered by chance that he had been struck off that list, too. He has since heard, he said, that his place had been sold off to the chief of one of Moscow's vegetable markets.


That kind of practice is illegal. Yevgeny Primakov, one of the Fatherland-All Russia standard-bearers, said at a news conference Thursday that something had to be done about corruption in Russia. But he's a former prime minister, one of the top names. It's the foot soldiers of politics who keep things going and the machine well oiled.


Is all this about people buying their way into the Duma? Not exactly.


The top three people on almost every list are politicians, party leaders. Typically, they're followed by people well known to the public, such as military heroes, film directors and authors. These are the names that, in theory, will induce the public to vote for the party. The politicians think of them as the steam engine that pulls the rest of the candidates along.


"Voters seldom study the whole list," Rimsky said. "They trust those first few names."


Only at about the No. 10 slot does the list-making become crass. Realistically, that limits the numbers who can be said to have paid their own way into parliament.


Candidates further down the list have other motives besides becoming public servants. One is simply to make a form of a campaign contribution in a way that will go unreported. Another is to have had the prestige of being close to powerful politicians. In Moscow, for example, it's advantageous for a businessman to be perceived as close to Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Rimsky said, "and that proximity turns into real money down the road."


For others, it's simply a season's worth of valuable advertising.


Even the Communist Party list includes, in fairly high slots, a bank president and an oil company executive, not the usual sort of comrades.


The one disadvantage of being a candidate is that financial and property holdings must be reported. That becomes a creative exercise for many. Fifty-three candidates on Zhirinovsky's original list, some of them bankers, declared that they had had no income last year. Vladimir Yakovlev, the governor of St. Petersburg, said he didn't own a car, a house or a country house. A spokesman later said they were in the names of his wife and other relatives.


"We live in a country of unholy scoundrels," said Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed, who not coincidentally has been locked in a bitter struggle with Anatoly Bykov, the aluminum executive on the lam who briefly had a place on Zhirinovsky's list. "If it keeps going like this until November, the entire political elite will be compromised to such an extent that it will stop being the elite and the electorate will simply not participate in the elections."


Lebed might be misreading the mood. Bykov is popular in Krasnoyarsk because people think his aluminum company takes better care of them than the governor does. And as for his being wanted by the police, plenty of Russians hold the law in such low esteem - in part because of the pervasive corruption - that they regard with a certain measure of respect and admiration any man the authorities are trying to cut down.