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Polls open in Russia’s colorful, controversial Tula race

February 9, 1997

TULA, Russia (AP) _ Polls opened Sunday in Tula’s colorful, high-profile election race that features candidates ranging from President Boris Yeltsin’s former top bodyguard to a chess champion and a suspected extortionist.

Ten candidates are running in a special election to fill the legislative seat vacated last year by Alexander Lebed, the charismatic former general and Yeltsin’s main political rival.

Some 234 polling stations opened at 8 a.m. in this industrial town 105 miles south of Moscow and will stay open until the evening for Tula’s 452,000 registered voters.

The prize in the election is relatively small _ one of 450 seats in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma. But the celebrity candidates and their unorthodox methods have put the race in the national limelight.

The daily newspaper Kommersant condemned the race this week as ``one of the most scandalous among the regional elections.″

Leading the field is Alexander Korzhakov, the former head of Yeltsin’s presidential guard and once the president’s confidant, who was ousted in a Kremlin power struggle last June.

Early in the race, the popular Lebed has endorsed Korzhakov, a longtime Kremlin insider with an unsavory reputation and close links to the defense plants that are Tula’s bread and butter.

Korzhakov could not possibly find a better ground.

``I hope the new Duma deputy will help Tula weapon-makers to revive the idle plants,″ one of the first voters, former defense factory worker Sergei Medvedev, told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Other candidates include former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov and a popular Tula economist, Eduard Pashchenko.

On Saturday, virtually at the last moment, a Tula court tossed out one of the most controversial candidates, a former fashion model whom it found guilty of ``crude″ violations of campaign finance laws.

Yelena Mavrodi, 27, attracted attention and the close scrutiny of election authorities by plying voters with cash to sign on as campaign workers. She is the wife of Sergei Mavrodi, who ran one of Russia’s first and most notorious investment funds that stripped thousands of their life savings.

Election officials labored all night to cross out Mavrodi’s name by hand, as it was too late to reprint the ballots, ITAR-Tass said.

Korzhakov, in turn, reportedly gave Tula residents presents of vodka, tea and chocolate through veteran groups working on his behalf.

``I survived the whole war and now they want to buy me with a bottle of vodka,″ complained World War II veteran Konstantin Dubrovin, who Friday told the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper that he received vodka, chocolate and a Korzhakov calendar from a young woman who knocked on his door.

Korzhakov, well ahead of the others in polls this week, denied the charges at a news conference. He accused his political enemy, presidential chief of staff Anatoly Chubais, of a smear campaign.

Only five of the candidates, including Karpov, are actually from Tula _ and Karpov rarely visited his hometown until the campaign.

In a recent newspaper interview, Karpov said he wants a brilliant career in politics to follow his brilliant career in chess. He has sought votes by promising to pay the elderly overdue pensions and is supported by Communists and other hard-liners.

One of the more colorful local candidates is Nikolai Novikov, a sports club president who is campaigning from jail, where he faces extortion charges.

Among the perks of office enjoyed by members of the Russian parliament is immunity from prosecution.

Early results are expected on Monday and election officials expect to formally announce the winner in a week.