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Rich Candidates Dot Duma Elections

December 11, 1999

MOSCOW (AP) _ Wanted: Parliamentary representative, well-connected, wealthy, preferably with access to natural resources or powerful industry. Successful candidate will be rewarded with a salary and perks he doesn’t need, and immunity from prosecution _ which might well come in handy one day.

The Dec. 19 election for a new State Duma, the lawmaking house of Parliament, has attracted a new class of candidate: the oligarchs. They are the handful of millionaires who gobbled up large parts of the Russian economy after the Soviet collapse _ often by dubious means, critics say.

As the Yeltsin era nears its end, the oligarch-candidates _ and their lower-level imitators who may fear prosecution _ want to play a public role in government and also possibly ensure their own safety.

``They already have more than enough money and influence,″ said Vladimir Rimsky, a political analyst with the Information for Democracy Foundation. ``But the Russian political process is developing, and we’ve gotten to the point where the people who enjoy the greatest status are elected officials.

Parliamentary immunity from prosecution is seen as the real attraction of a Duma seat _ and it’s not just the oligarchs who are looking for immunity.

St. Petersburg candidate Yuri Shutov is awaiting trial for allegedly ordering seven contract murders. Sergei Mikhailov, who has been accused but never convicted of leading Moscow’s murderous Solntsevo criminal gang, is running from the southern town of Taganrog.

Numerous other candidates stand accused of economic and other crimes, and four are wanted by police, mostly on extortion charges, said Konstantin Nikishkin, an Interior Ministry official.

Jaded by traditional politicians, voters have elected people with criminal records before, counting on them to be effective at winning benefits for their regions.

``Those who are entering the Duma are used to the fact that nothing in Russia can be done according to the law,″ Rimsky said. ``And that’s why they’re going into the Duma, because they know that the Duma can adopt any law, give any perks and lobby for advantages to this or that financial group.″

Boris Berezovsky, one of the most notorious oligarchs, made his fortune in oil and automobiles and has carved a political career out of his ties with President Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle. Now he’s running for parliament in Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, a small, poor republic in Russia’s North Caucasus region where at least one-quarter of the working population is unemployed and local incomes are a fraction of the low Russian average.

Roman Abramovich, an oligarch who controls the Sibneft oil giant, is running in an even more remote and poverty-stricken region _ Chukotka, in the frozen north of Russia’s Far East. Chukotka suffers from continual shortages of food and fuel in the winter, due to both a lack of local resources and iced-in transport routes.

Both men, with their industrial connections and political clout, are campaigning on the economic benefits they say they can bring to the regions. The Obshchaya Gazeta weekly reported that Chukotka switched oil suppliers in the autumn, and that Sibneft has already supplied $5 million worth of fuel to the region.

``Imagine: You’re living in one of these places, you’ve never seen this man in your life, and all of a sudden he shows up and can solve any problem for you,″ Rimsky said. ``You need gas? You’ll have it in three months. You want humanitarian aid? You’ve got it.″

And the voters can solve the oligarchs’ biggest problem: making the transition to a new political era when proximity to Yeltsin will be no advantage. Yeltsin’s exit after next June’s presidential vote could leave Berezovsky and Abramovich vulnerable to political attacks by their foes.

Both men have been accused of corruption and of bankrolling Yeltsin’s family. And Berezovsky has been facing an on-again, off-again investigation of allegations that profits from the national airline Aeroflot were funneled to Swiss firms. The lead Russian investigator told Literaturnaya Gazeta weekly he was preparing to reopen the case against Berezovsky on charges of fraud and misappropriating about $9 million.

For now, Berezovsky’s influence over the Kremlin appears to be shielding him from prosecution. If he does win a seat in the Duma, he’ll enjoy the parliamentary immunity guaranteed to every deputy unless his colleagues vote to strip it.

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