Fears On Hold As Well-To-Do Eye Election Warily
MOSCOW (AP) _ Grimacing in the scalding steam at Russia’s poshest bathhouse, the potbellied executive put a brave face on the specter of an imminent return to communism.
``The Communists don’t scare me,″ said Viktor Anokhin, 55. ``We all lived under the Communists, and sometimes it wasn’t bad.″
Other times, as his fellow bathers pointed out, it was horrible.
A rotund man named Nikolai, hunched naked over a heaping bowl of shrimp and wearing a gold chain like a badge of success, said he was ``satisfied with the life I lead now. I don’t want to go back to communism.″
Partaking in the pricey perks of the new, non-communist Russia, it is people like these _ businessmen, bankers, nouveaux riches _ who may have the most to lose if Gennady Zyuganov becomes president.
It’s not just history or paranoia that makes Russia’s `haves’ fear the Communists. Evidence abounds that they haven’t fully abandoned the Soviet version of Robin Hood economics: Take from the rich and give to the Party.
But the near-panic that rippled through many when polls gave the Communist a huge lead seems to have been replaced by a wary, fingers-crossed confidence now that Boris Yeltsin has the momentum going into Sunday’s election.
The mood of these pro-reformers appears to be less red scare than red alert.
``People are not scared about a Communist victory right now,″ said Sergei Skaterschikov, 24, an entrepreneur whose publishing company has racked up millions of dollars in sales under the president’s reforms.
``They feel a Yeltsin victory is in the air. They’re just not planning long-term or doing crazy stuff,″ he said.
For the moneyed, that means hanging onto their ``bucksy,″ or at least not spending them in Russia.
Construction of country cottages, luxury car sales, stock purchases and the art market all drooped in late winter and spring when Zyuganov was the undisputed front-runner. The diamond-studded gold rings in the exclusive St. George Street Mall gathered dust in their showcases.
Some of the wealthy prepared for quick exits, lining up for foreign visas, renting apartments in Cyprus or Prague, even reportedly obtaining citizenship in Panama and Switzerland.
Mercedes and BMW sales are still slumping in Moscow, where bored saleswomen pace the floors and wait for buyers to return.
But some realtors in the capital report that the lull has shown signs of subsiding in the last month, and stock prices also have increased in tentative signs of public confidence.
``Everybody is still waiting,″ said Aleksei Makarenko of the Moscow Association of Realtors. ``But judging by the latest ratings of the presidential candidates, everything is going to work out.″
Sipping wine at an art show, bank executive Alexander Balmatkov winced at the mere mention of a possible Communist takeover. He says it would force him to lay off many of his 150 employees.
Zyuganov’s platform singles out the wealthy for criticism, noting ominously that it’s ``practically impossible″ to end up in a high-income group by honest means. His promise to overhaul the banking system is taken as an open threat that his government would seize or redirect many assets.
Like many other companies, Balmatkov’s bank called in lawyers months ago to ``get everything in order″ in the event of a Zyuganov victory, making sure every asset and investment is protected. But now Balmatkov and his colleagues have allowed themselves to grow hopeful because of the polls, however unreliable they have proven to be.
``We had several partners who said they were cooperating with the Communists and were ready to work with them,″ said Balmatkov, 38. ``Now they say, `Only Boris Nikolayevich (Yeltsin) _ he will win.″
Particularly in Moscow, it is difficult for many pro-reformers to envision a Communist victory. Polls give Zyuganov less than 10 percent support in the capital, a chaotic showplace of free-market reforms where stores, restaurants and nightclubs are bustling with business.
A young businessman who gave his name only as Boris pooh-poohed the notion as he pumped token after token into a one-armed bandit in a packed casino at 1 a.m.
``They can’t shut things down immediately, in any case. It’s not the ’70s,″ he said, drawing on his cigarette. ``Of course, it’ll hurt me as a businessman. But I’m not scared.″
Back at the elegant Sandunovsky Baths, where the $20 cost of a ``banya″ is several days pay for the average Russian, Nikolai pondered an unpleasant choice as he relaxed near a pool surrounded by Roman columns.
``Everyone knows Yeltsin and his people are corrupt,″ he said. ``But I’m voting for him anyway. The Communists would be much worse for us.″