Campaign Season of Discontent: Russian candidate focuses on service, not ideology


Yevgeny Bushmin, running for the Russian parliament, speaks to a voter at the 'Agat' factory which made lasers for the military. (David Hoffman/The Washington Post)
June 11

Editor’s Note: When Yevgeny Bushmin was running in 1995 for reelection to Russia’s lower house of parliament, he was a young pro-Western businessman who was eager to adopt American-style capitalism and democracy in his rapidly evolving nation. Now, 19 years later, he is on the U.S. sanctions list, barred from traveling to the country he once sought to emulate.

This piece, originally printed on Dec. 13, 1995, has been republished below from our archives.

KSTOVO, RUSSIA -- Yevgeny Bushmin arrived at the factory gate at 9:15 a.m., but the sprawling, snowbound complex had a ghostly air about it. The Agat factory still bore the familiar giant slogan: “Honor and Glory According to Your Work!” But the glory days are gone. No one even glanced up at the dusty warning sign about plant security, which hardly matters anymore.

Bushmin, an independent running for reelection to the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, was beginning his campaign day in enemy territory. A 37-year-old economic reformist with a boyish appearance, a Russian flag pin in his lapel and no party affiliation, Bushmin stepped through the turnstile into one of the dinosaurs of the Soviet age -- a once secret factory that used to make gas lasers for the military.

It was the first stop on a day in the life of the Russian parliamentary campaign, a day that underscored the woes, troubles and confusions of Russian voters in this season of discontent but one that also highlighted the fascinating, wobbly, yet striving character of Russia’s young democracy.

While much of the attention in Moscow has focused on the super-heated competition among parties in Sunday’s election, half the seats in the Duma are chosen on the basis of local candidates in individual districts. Bushmin represents District 122, with 450,258 eligible voters, which stretches from Nizhny Novgorod -- the formerly closed city of Gorky just northwest of here -- deep into the countryside. Bushmin won the district with 33.4 percent of the vote in 1993, but anti-reform Communists and Agrarians also did well.

In district races such as this one, competition is based not so much on ideology and party platforms, but on individuals, and Bushmin’s day offered a grass-roots perspective on Russia’s second post-Soviet parliamentary campaign.

Not once in his 15 hours of campaigning was Bushmin asked about such issues as Russia’s role in the world or expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. Nor did voters seem much interested in Kremlin intrigues. A few inquired about the war in the separatist southern region of Chechnya, but the overwhelming focus was on economic survival in hard times. “People care only about their day-to-day problems,” Bushmin said.

Wearing a suit, dark cloth coat, white scarf and fur hat, Bushmin seemed very much the young entrepreneur he once was. During the years of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, or restructuring, Bushmin started a company to provide computers and software for managing hospital patients. He later became the first chairman of the fledgling Nizhny Novgorod stock exchange.

He is an enthusiast for economic reform, tempered by the more cautious outlook of his agrarian constituents, but also a critic of President Boris Yeltsin and the war in Chechnya. His district includes rural villages little changed in the last century, but he is equally at home chatting about Windows 95 and different ways to get electronic mail on his computer.

Bushmin has one big disadvantage as the election approaches. He is the incumbent, facing 10 challengers -- twice as many as last time -- and people are in a surly mood about the political establishment. “It’s my biggest disadvantage,” he said. “People don’t like power, and I represent power.”

He tried to explain to voters that he is a member of the relatively weak Duma, not the powerful presidential apparatus in Moscow, but they did not seem to grasp the distinction.

Although his voting record in the Duma is reform oriented, Bushmin said it is difficult to preach economic liberalization and democracy to people in distress. During this day of campaigning, he stressed his personal service rather than grand concepts of free markets and democratic reforms. The very word democracy has come to be associated in Russia with hardship. “I’m not allergic to democracy,” Bushmin said. “The only advice I have is let’s give it a different name and keep doing it.”

His closest rival, Nadir Hafizov, 45, an oil industrialist, calls himself a socialist who will get heavy industry back on its feet.

Bushmin was worried as he rode to the factory in the back seat of a gray Volga, a Russian-made car that resembles a tank as it surges through mounds of winter slush and snow. He feared the factory workers would be hostile because the plant had failed to get huge work orders from the state, as in the old days. “The workers won’t like a government that failed to deliver orders to such a high-tech plant,” he said.

Russian politicking, at least at the grass-roots level, is a surprisingly intense affair. Quick sound bites do not work. Candidates are expected to talk, talk and talk. Bushmin, in a half-hour opening monologue to about two dozen workers crowded into the plant director’s office, emphasized that as a member of the Duma budget committee he has tried to get more money for local civic projects.

But the workers were more interested in their moribund factory. Near them rested a model of the laser system they used to build. Factory director Vladimir Boryakov said most of the 2,000 workers are on leave; those still working assemble some radio communications gear and parts for furniture.

“What does the government think about our enterprise?” an elderly woman worker askedBushmin.

“Please understand, I have nothing to do with the government,” he replied, defensively.

“This is what we came to hear about!” she insisted.

He responded that only a hard-working member of parliament like him could pry money out of the Moscow bureaucrats. Sensing the discontentment, Bushmin urged the workers not to throw away their ballots on ultranationalist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who benefited from just such spite in parliamentary elections two years ago.

“It’s a silly thing to do,” he told them, offering a parable: “Imagine two families living next to each other and sharing the same well. They get into a fight, and one throws a dead cat into the well to hurt the other. But the next day, they need to draw water too -- they are hurting themselves. So please vote for anyone else but Zhirinovsky’s party.”

Bushmin once attended a seminar in London on the methods of British politics, but instead of polls, advertising and a staff of strategists, he is relying largely on instinct and the hard work of his wife, Larissa, who is helping organize his campaign.

Bushmin’s annual pay as a member of the Duma is about $4,000. He received $88 from the government for his campaign but has spent much more. Private sponsors pay the difference. His game plan is simple -- one meeting for every 10,000 voters.

By 11:10 a.m., Bushmin was back in the Volga, its windshield wipers struggling vainly against the muck during a two-hour drive to Sergach, a provincial town, for a televised debate. Only six of Bushmin’s challengers showed up, including Hafizov, the industrialist. Bushmin tried in vain to smooth his boyish cowlick as the camera panned by.

Then the moderator, Igor Garin, who is press secretary to the local government administrator, announced that the candidates should forget about their programs. People are more interested in their personalities, he said, and asked them, “What was your greatest success in life, and what was your greatest failure?” And, “How do you see Sergach in five years?”

There was no debate, not even an angry exchange. Most of the answers were pallid and fluffy. Bushmin said the town needs money to finish building a maternity ward; a local technical college must be refurbished; housing is short; and there is no natural gas line to the town. “I’ll have all this in mind when working on the budget,” he said.

The day was already growing dark when Bushmin finished lunch at a local restaurant -- a salad drowning in mayonnaise; dark bread and dumplings in broth. The Volga pushed on toward Salgan, a rural borough, but the driver and Bushmin got lost. There were no signs, only the winter darkness. Bushmin fretted about being late. Finally, they found the town council building. Only a dozen people were still there; the others had left to milk their cows.

“I can get things done for you in Moscow,” he told them. They pelted him with questions for more than an hour. What about the local collective farm that could not sell its potatoes to the state? What about depositors who were swindled by phony investment schemes? When will taxes be cut? What about an unfinished local monument? What about the confusing welter of 43 political parties on the ballot? What about buying and selling farmland?

And finally, a familiar lament from a persistent woman in the front row: “No matter what people say, that we have more sausage and clothes than before, life is harder, and we need another life.”

Exhausted, Bushmin headed home at 8:15 p.m. The Volga groaned on into the night, and he fell fast asleep.

Comments
Show Comments

Get the WorldViews newsletter

Sign up for daily updates from WorldViews.

Most Read World