In the Communist Party's television ad, a construction worker's hard hat is slammed down on a table. Then a mobile phone. The muscular arm of a laborer takes up an arm-wrestling pose. A businessman's arm, with cuff links and a fancy watch, accepts the challenge.
As the years of the 1990s tick by on the screen, the businessman almost wins. But in the closing scene, the worker triumphs.
In the final week of Russia's parliamentary election campaign, these are the kinds of images flooding the airwaves. Virtually every major party is focusing on the economy and Russia's tumultuous attempt in recent years to become a free-market democracy.
In the four years since the last parliamentary election, Russia has gone from boom to bust and halfway back again. The reelection of President Boris Yeltsin in 1996 touched off a burst of foreign investment in Russian stocks and bonds, and the country returned to global credit markets. But the Asian financial crisis, political clan warfare in Russia and the overvalued ruble led to a devaluation and default in August 1998 that discredited many free-market reforms. The election will demonstrate how public disenchantment translates into political choices.
If the advertising of the parties is a mirror of the political consensus today, then the verdict on Russian capitalism is not a happy one. From the Communists to a bloc headed by former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov to the centrist Yabloko party, political commercials are filled with criticism of corruption, cronyism, lawlessness and poverty. Rarely does anyone raise such issues as Russia's place in the world or who should lead it after Yeltsin leaves office next year; elementary questions of jobs and welfare are at the core of every campaign commercial.
"Are we going to live better?" an elderly man asks Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko party, in one ad. "We have everything to live better in this country," Yavlinsky reassures him. The party's slogan then appears: "Yabloko--for a decent life."
In another ad, Primakov sits solemnly at a big wooden desk. "Look around!" he implores. "Poverty, lawlessness, corruption and theft! These things prevent us from working normally and being proud of our country. . . . We will establish order on the basis of law. We will strike at those who take bribes!"
Despite the gloomy tone, there are some promising trends in the rhetoric and platforms of the Russian political parties. One is the simple fact of a vigorous political campaign in which all the players see the race itself as a vehicle for competing for power.
Next Sunday's vote will determine the makeup of the lower house of parliament, the 450-seat State Duma, for the next four years. Half the seats are filled based on party lists, meaning that parties that win at least 5 percent of the vote will share these 225 seats on a proportional basis.
The other half of the seats are filled through races in individual districts. This is the first time in the short eight-year history of Russian democracy that Duma districts have remained the same since the previous election, and more than a dozen candidates are running in many of them. The upper chamber of parliament, the Federation Council, is made up of regional governors and leaders of local legislatures.
As part of their vigorous campaigns, most of the major parties have drafted relatively pro-market political platforms. Although the Duma's powers are relatively weak, the last session demonstrated that the chamber can be an important factor in economic policy, blocking reforms, as well as pushing them.
A study by Mikhail Dmitriev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here found that in the last four years all the political parties "have grown weary of inflation, and no party is proposing large-scale printing of money" as a means of coping with government obligations. Four years ago, the Communists and the party of nationalist legislator Vladimir Zhirinovsky advocated "virtually uncontrolled" money printing.
Morever, Dmitriev said, the major parties now agree on the need to cut punitive taxes, and none of the parties--including the Communists--"advocate full-scale state intervention" in the economy, a marked change from four years ago.
Perhaps the most important shift, Dmitriev found, is on the issue of privatization of state assets. Russia carried out a historic transfer of state-owned property to private hands in the 1990s, one that remains intensely controversial. Dmitriev noted that four years ago, the Communists sought to reverse this process by putting some enterprises back in the hands of the state.
"Between 1995 and 1999, a major shift has taken place," he said, adding that the "main focus" now is on improving how companies are run, not renationalizing them. "The Communist Party is now talking about how to enforce property rights and provide effective protection of private property which was acquired 'honestly.' "
The Communists, however, do want to take back those enterprises they say are "working unsatisfactorily, or not working at all," party leader Gennady Zyuganov said.
Zyuganov also has vowed to reverse some of the gains of Russia's new financial tycoons, known here as the "oligarchs." He said Russia's privatization led to "bandit capitalism" and that "now with shooting, scuffling and under the complete indifference of the law enforcement authorities, the bandits have started the second redistribution of what was already stolen once."
The Communists are not alone in attacking the tycoons, who have come under intense criticism in many commercials and television broadcasts. "Will we live in a state of oligarchs and corrupt officials, or in a normal and prosperous country?" asked Yabloko member Vladimir Averchev in one of the party's television broadcasts.
In another broadcast, Primakov declared: "It is time we lived without looking back at home-grown oligarchs clinging to power." He promised that if elected, "we will start fighting those plundering Russia."
CAPTION: A construction worker and a businessman arm wrestle over Russia's future in a Communist Party television commercial. In the closing scene, the worker triumphs.