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MOSCOW – In a well-known Russian anecdote, a police investigator is questioning the son-in-law of an elderly lady who has been found dead. “Why did she die?” the policeman asks. “Because she ate poisoned mushrooms,” the son-in-law replies. “So why is her body covered with bruises?” the policeman asks. “Because she was stupid, and didn’t want to eat,” the son-in-law says.

Russian politics are more than a little like the old lady.

It is now one month into the parliamentary election season, with just eight weeks to go before polling day. Each day, the electorate is being pummeled by multimillion-dollar propaganda campaigns, which include the manipulation of voter polls designed to generate the impression of fake groundswells of opinion. Almost every nuance has been professionally anticipated, diagnosed and neutralized with as much election technology as money can buy.

If you look at the headlines of Russian newspapers, or ask ordinary voters, you’re bound to conclude that one of the dominating issues at this stage of the campaign is whether the oligarchs — the handful of men who acquired Russia’s major energy and mineral assets on the cheap and are now trying to sell them off to foreign buyers — should be allowed to get away with the cash for the second time in five years. I say the second time, because the ruble crash and bank default of August 1998 allowed oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky (remember Menatep Bank?) and Vladimir Potanin (Uneximbank?) to rid themselves of bad billion-dollar wagers their banks had made and expand the difference between their onshore costs and offshore profits — all at the expense of most Russian savings. Ordinary Russians haven’t forgotten that.

If, next, you ask the leaders of the major political parties running for seats in parliament two questions about this subject, you might think their answers would address what is on the minds of the voters. In order to understand what Russian politicians, especially those who say they are campaigning in opposition to the government, think the voters should hear, I have spent a month asking one question about the oligarchs and one about what is to be done about them. What should be on the tip of every Russian politician’s tongue right now, if not the answers to these two questions?

1. Do you or does your party approve of the sale of a strategic shareholding of Yukos to a foreign oil company?

2. Do you or does your party support taxing the oligarchs’ wealth, such as a capital-gains tax, a tax on foreign remittances of profit or a superprofit tax?

Fatherland and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) are usually classified as pro-Kremlin in the way their members have voted in the Duma now coming to an end. Fatherland contested the last Duma election in opposition to its current ally, the United Russia group; in this campaign, they are indistinguishable. Together, they claim a 40 percent share of the current Duma’s seats. The best the pollsters are projecting for them in December is 37 percent. The LDPR currently has a 3 percent share of the Duma’s seats, but the polls are suggesting a harvest of protest votes to propel them to 14 percent.

When they campaign for votes, Fatherland – whose name in Russian, Otechestvo, suggests the fatherland, motherland, patriotism and nationalism — and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the only public figure recognized by LDPR voters, act as if national policy ought to rule out the massive transfer of Russian wealth abroad. You would guess that both parties should find it easy to answer yes to both questions, even if they might be a trifle uncomfortable with the details.

At Fatherland, the party spokesman found the questions so surprising that he asked for them to be submitted by e-mail. That was done many days ago. There has been no reply. At the LDPR, the spokesman for the party and for Zhirinovsky refused to answer either question. That’s because, he said, “we are not ready to provide a new economic program, and we don’t comment on any suggestions in the economic-policy area.”

In the ideological center of the Russian political lineup, there is Yabloko, the oppositionist party led by Grigory Yavlinsky. He commands a 4 percent share of the retiring Duma; his projected share in the new one, if the polls are right, would be only 3 percent. Yavlinsky was once a professional economist. A month ago, his spokesman, Maxim Zubilin, said that it was a little early to answer the questions because “our election program is not quite ready.” Regarding taxes, he said, Yabloko is “a consistent advocate of cutting them, all taxes, starting with value-added tax. The reason for this is that the decrease of taxation will help move capital out of the shadows.” But what if capital moves out of the shadows — and out of Russia, too? To Zubilin, this sounded like “a way of sharing with the people” and was definitely not Yabloko’s idea. On the other hand, Zubilin acknowledged that there may be a problem of capital leaving Russia and that “we think it should be prevented through economic, not administrative, measures.” So what about taxing capital gains and foreign-profit remittances? Zubilin wouldn’t answer.

And what about the number-one question on everybody’s mind — the Yukos question?

Zubilin seemed crestfallen. “Regarding the possibility of the sale of a strategic share in Yukos to foreigners,” he said, “I think the party doesn’t have an official position.” Zubilin then added that “Yukos is a private company, and the sale of its shares to foreign investors is its own affair. Yukos is one of the most transparent companies in Russia. The wish of U.S. investors to invest money into this company is a good proof of that.” Since Zubilin’s reliance on U.S. investors to decide Russian economic policy seemed an odd pitch for Russian votes, I decided to try Yabloko again — after the foreign press had put the Yukos sale to ExxonMobil or ChevronTexaco on the front pages, and after President Vladimir Putin had been to the United States to chat about the matter with President George W. Bush — and Henry Kissinger over dinner at the latter’s New York apartment. This time, Yabloko’s spokesman was more cautious. He requested that the questions be sent by email. Two weeks have passed, and there has been no reply.

Yabloko thought that Sergei Glazyev, the former economist who is heading the Motherland party, might be in favor of taxing the oligarchs’ wealth and even of preventing Khodorkovsky from selling his shareholding. In 1996, Glazyev, then head of economic security on the Kremlin’s Security Council, came out against the methods by which the oligarchs had acquired their assets through phony privatization and against the uses to which they put their capital. But that was then. What about a month ago, when Khodorkovsky was reported to be selling 20 percent of Yukos for about $11 billion to ChevronTexaco?

I must have picked the wrong day, because Glazyev’s spokesman said that he wouldn’t answer until Sept. 22, when he planned to release his economic program. I called back last week, long after the program had had time to mature and after Khodorkovsky was now telling his friends at the Financial Times that he was selling a 40 percent stake of Yukos to ExxonMobil for $25 billion. Anna Gorbatova is Glazyev’s spokeswoman, and, from what she says, she feels sorry for him. On the one hand, she says, Glazyev is too busy to answer questions. On the other hand, he is traveling and too tired to answer his mobile phone. If he had the chance to review the questions by e-mail, Gorbatova said, the poor man might be able to give an answer in two weeks.

Glazyev is a frail fellow with a thin-reed voice that could easily fail under the pressure of campaigning. It’s perhaps just as well that he has the burly Dmitry Rogozin, with plenty of stamina, as the number-two candidate on the Motherland ballot. Rogozin has always presented himself as an ardent nationalist — with military overtones, when he managed the first of Gen. Alexander Lebed’s political campaigns. Since then, Rogozin has matured into the chairmanship of the Duma Committee for International Relations, where dealing with foreign policy is his daily bread and butter.

Surely, if anyone in the election campaign had a view on the Yukos question, it would be Rogozin. He sent his spokeswoman Olga Sagoreva to the telephone. But she was almost as sorry for Rogozin as Gorbatova was for Glazyev. “Rogozin,” she apologized, “is firstly a politician, and not very good with economic questions.” If a candidate for public office is no good at something, it’s a relief to hear it first from his closest associates. But there is no point beating around the bush — Rogozin doesn’t have an opinion to pass on to voters about taxing the oligarchs in general or dealing with Yukos in particular. His spokeswoman thought that it might be useful if I asked Glazyev, because she thought he might not be as bad at economics as Rogozin. She also invited an e-mail. There has been no reply.

Glazyev has positioned himself as the young left-leaning voter’s alternative to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). He insists that he is neither on the take from the Kremlin nor from the anti-Communist corporations to split the Communist vote and diminish its voting power in the new Duma. But what to make of the KPRF itself? It’s noteworthy that, on the 18 candidate Communist federal list that voters will see on their ballot papers, there is one, Sergei Muravlenko, who is a former chairman of the board of directors of Yukos, and another, Alexei Kandaurov, currently head of an analysis department in one of Yukos’ corporate divisions. They are on the KPRF ballot, according to party officials, because they are “old party comrades,” not because they are from Yukos. So what does the old party think of Khodorkovsky’s attempt to transfer his capital to an American corporation?

Ivan Melnikov is the party’s campaign voice, and he doesn’t like to lose it. On the one hand, he wants to address the questions, so he has asked for them to be sent by e-mail. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to answer them. Indeed, Melnikov has evaded answering these two questions for more than a month. As an associate of Melnikov’s at KPRF headquarters explains, he will continue to refuse to answer the questions, but avoid looking like he is doing so.

The KPRF is reputed to be the strongest opposition party in Russia, maybe the strongest party of them all. Current polls give it a projected 37 percent share of the new Duma. That is not only up on last month’s poll projections, but also double the party’s current Duma strength. Allowing for the exaggeration such polls are meant to convey — to galvanize a wave of anti-Communist energy from the electorate — it does appear that there may be a tidal wave of opposition sentiment coming in December, If so, it’s hardiy good news for the government and the Kremlin. That is, if you believe the way the sides and choices of the political campaign have been portrayed by the government’s propagandists. But what if there is no opposition, because, on the burning issues of the day, there is no one in the campaign who will give voters the answers to two of the most obvious questions of all?

Ever since Khodorkovsky began to feel the heat for his attempts to cash out and secure U.S. backing for himself, his capital and his ambitions, he has told his supporters that the real reason for his confrontation with the Kremlin is politics, not economics. According to Khodorkovsky and his supporters, he has been spending too much of his company’s time trying to influence the outcome of the Duma elections and buying votes and candidates, threatening the Kremlin’s strategy for a majority parliament of its own. In short, Khodorkovsky has claimed that his sale of Yukos is being blocked because he is threatening to create a political opposition all of his own. To this end, he has been reported to have bankrolled Yabloko, the KPRF and, possibly, other candidates as well.

If this is true, the money appears to have bought nothing but silence so far. But the tongue-tied candidates do tell one thing: If they don’t dare campaign on the issue of the Yukos sale, then the only choice in Russian politics doesn’t include them. So, let’s call off the Duma election — it’s nothing more than the poisoned mushroom in the well-known anecdote. Let’s go straight to the only real choice that Russians have to vote on — Putin VS. Khodorkovsky. The Russia Journal

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