AP NEWS
Related topics

Russian Presidential Race Has Something for Everyone

June 6, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ Meet the other guys in Russia’s presidential race, the nobody-can-figure-out-why-they’re-running contingent.

In this empire of the odd, billionaire show-off Vladimir Bryntsalov reigns supreme. Most Russians see him as the embodiment of something they despise: The ``new rich″ and their heedless vulgarity.

Bryntsalov isn’t even a blip on the public opinion polls. But that didn’t keep him out of the race. Or a handful of other unlikely candidates, either, including a dour Olympic weightlifter with neo-Nazi fans and the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

These guys have no chance of winning. No one takes them seriously as candidates. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a role in the June 16 election. They do. They’re the unintended comic relief in Russia’s unruly democratic drama.

Especially Bryntsalov, a 49-year-old pharmaceutical magnate who calls money ``mankind’s greatest invention.″ He and his young wife, Natasha, not only embody the tackiness of Russia’s ``new rich″ _ they go it one better.

They love to be interviewed and turn every TV appearance into something resembling ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.″ The gusto with which they flaunt their wealth is equaled only by that with which they flaunt their bodies.

On a recent show, for example, Natasha pulled down her riding pants and wiggled a spandex-clad fanny at the camera. Beaming proudly, Bryntsalov, a member of parliament, slapped her smartly on the rear.

Natasha Bryntsalov is a trophy wife _ and proud of it. She has a heart-shaped face, a mane of strawberry blonde hair, a deeply dimpled chin and a staggering array of diamonds and furs.

Twenty years younger than her husband, she loves to talk about how Bryntsalov wooed and won her in two days and then ``made a woman out of me.″ She says he now pays her $18,000 a month _ a fortune in a nation where millions live in grinding poverty _ to ``advise″ him on his ``image.″

Bryntsalov boasts constantly about his virility _ and points to his wife, children and vast fortune as proof of it. He delights in showing off his palatial homes, his designer clothes, his $80,000 Rolex watch, his pistol, his bare chest.

He confesses to just one disappointment in life: People don’t realize just how rich he really is.

Bryntsalov, who advocates a scorched-earth policy in Chechnya, brags about fending off mob-run protection rackets when he was starting out in business. ``Their bones have long been rotting in Moscow’s forests,″ he said not long ago.

Ask him about his sex life, ask him about his money. Just don’t ask him why he’s running.

``It’s my personal business,″ he told the newspaper Top Secret. ``What do you want me to say? That I care about the country? That I’m going to feed and clothe everyone?″

What explains the candidacy of someone like Bryntsalov or the other no-hopers? Ego may account for it. Or a desire for 15 Warholian minutes of fame. Or, in the case of the widely loathed Gorbachev, it might even be masochism.

Millions blame Gorbachev for the misfortunes that have befallen them and their country since the Soviet empire disintegrated on his watch. Campaigning for president was like pinning on a ``Kick Me″ sign.

The invitation was accepted with a baleful, get-even glee. Gorbachev has been bonked on the head by a disgruntled drunk, heckled in Volgograd and mocked in the media.

The 11-man ballot in the race to run Russia offers several other candidates as improbable as Bryntsalov and Gorbachev. Among them:

_Yuri Vlasov, 60, a two-time Olympic powerlifting medalist and former lawmaker who evolved from a fervent pro-democracy campaigner into someone many now consider a bit to the right of Attila the Hun.

So far, he’s got at least one endorsement: A neo-Nazi party whose young adherents shout ``Sieg Heil″ at demonstrations.

_Think tank executive Martin Shakkum, whose main claim to fame is his deep obscurity. Undeterred by having absolutely no chance of winning, Shakkum published two ``presidential decrees″ this week on bribery and economics.

They’re dated June 17 _ the day after the election _ and signed ``President of the Russian Federation M. Shakkum.″

AP RADIO
Update hourly