A Putin rival tries to waken Russian voters to democracy


MOSCOW -- She feels like one of her samurai ancestors, she says, preparing to do battle against a far stronger force.

Slight, poised and garbed in black, Irina Khakamada knows she doesn't have a prayer of winning Russia's presidential elections March 14. By challenging President Vladimir V. Putin, she has been warned that she puts herself at physical risk.

But the 48-year-old economist, whose father was a Japanese Bolshevik and whose mother was a Russian, says that someone has to defend democracy in Russia.

A nationwide opinion poll late last month by VCIOM Analytic Agency found only 1 percent of voters backing Khakamada, compared with 67 percent for Putin. She lacks endorsements from prominent pro-democracy politicians, who have questioned her reasons for running. She has a skeleton campaign staff and no money for television ads.

To her, the contest isn't about winning but about "waking up" voters to the threat to Russia's fledgling free markets and democratic institutions.

Her grievances against the Kremlin include its crackdown on the press, its relentless pursuit of the war in Chechnya and the concern that the state is again using police and the courts to punish political foes.

Almost all government power, she said, is concentrated in the hands of one person, Putin.

"There is no division of powers, as called for in the constitution," she said. "The courts, parliament, the presidential administration, the government -- it's all the same thing."

A decision to run

In parliamentary elections in December, Russia's liberal democrats were routed. The two main democratic parties -- the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, and Yabloko -- saw their representation in the State Duma reduced to seven seats from 49.

Among the losers were prominent reformers, including Khakamada, an SPS leader, who lost her bid for re-election in a St. Petersburg district.

Politically battered, the liberals tried to unite behind a single presidential candidate. But none of the leading figures from either party wanted to run. Challenging an overwhelmingly popular figure such as Putin, whose approval ratings reached 84 percent last month, "is like murder for a politician, it's like suicide," Khakamada said.

There was talk about boycotting the election and waiting until 2008 to field a presidential candidate. To Khakamada, that notion was foolish. If pro-democracy forces didn't campaign in 2004, she warned, there might not be a 2008 election.

She decided to run herself.

From that moment, other liberals began to question her motives. Was she running on behalf of the Kremlin to add a veneer of legitimacy to a sham election?

Asked about this, Khakamada's lips tighten. She rolls her eyes. It's not true, she says. But the fact that that question is always raised, she adds, shows how suspicion and fear still have Russia by the throat.

"It's a sign that we have built somehow wrong here, something not quite right."

Sergei A. Kalmykov, vice president of the Moscow-based Development of Parliament Foundation, said about half the voters who would usually support liberal democrats defected in December parliamentary elections to the nationalist Motherland Party.

The two liberal democratic parties, SPS and Yabloko, represent the hopes of engineers and other professionals, who are among the strongest advocates of Western-style institutions and market reforms. If no pro-reform democrats were to challenge Putin for the presidency, many believers in Western-style government could permanently lose faith.

"From that point of view, the move of Mrs. Khakamada for the presidency is quite understandable," Kalmykov said. "Maybe she will use this opportunity to spread some doubts about the general lines of Mr. Putin's politics. Maybe she will create an agenda for the merger of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces."

One thing she can't do is win. "But if she receives 5 percent," Kalmykov said, "it will be a great success."

Achieving even that seemingly modest goal will require hard work and some luck.

Coverage of Khakamada on Russia's state-controlled television has been mostly negative, focusing on her ties to Russia's oligarchs. The tycoons made billions of dollars buying state assets in the freewheeling 1990s, while millions of ordinary Russians lost their life savings to bank failures and currency collapses.

On Jan. 14, the Russian billionaire Leonid Nevzlin, a major shareholder in Yukos Oil, pledged to help Khakamada. She saw the offer as a lifesaver for her struggling campaign.

Within days, Russian prosecutors issued a warrant seeking Nevzlin's extradition from Israel, where he moved last year. She felt it was an indirect effort to smear her.

The NTV television network, which once boasted Russia's most independent and professional broadcast news operation, reported that Khakamada's campaign was being financed by Yukos.

Nevzlin has provided organizational support but no money, Khakamada's campaign staff said.

"The truth is that Yukos is not financing anything," she said. "But this is what this 'reliable, respectable' television channel is reporting."

Now, even Russians of modest means are reluctant to donate to her campaign, for fear of retribution.

"It's a very bad sign," she said.

Against tall odds

Growing up, Khakamada was not impressed with the Soviet system. Neither was she happy when, perhaps because of her mixed ethnicity, she was denied the right to study Japanese at the prestigious Moscow State University.

After earning a degree in economics from Moscow's Friendship University, she worked for a time at an economics institute, where not much got done. Later, she worked as a computer specialist at a collective farm, and is still a bit of a geek. (During a recent interview, she absent-mindedly surfed the Internet while fielding questions.)

Khakamada was elected to the Duma in 1993, where she remained for 10 years, becoming an expert in small-business and economic issues.

She was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Putin when he was plucked from relative obscurity to become prime minister and finally acting president in 1999. But she became sharply critical after the hostage crisis in a Moscow theater in October 2002.

Khakamada tried to help broker talks between the Kremlin and Chechen guerillas who stormed the theater and seized 800 hostages. But the effort to resolve the crisis through negotiations failed.

Security forces pumped narcotic gas into the theater and then stormed it, guns blazing. At least 129 hostages died -- all but two of them from the sedative effects of the gas. All of the 41 hostage-takers were killed, many execution-style.

Khakamada blames the Kremlin as much as the Chechens for the bloodshed.

"The priority was not saving the lives of people but putting on a great show," she said. She was further alienated by the Kremlin's staging a constitutional referendum and local elections in Chechnya last year. Both were marred by reports of voting irregularities.

After Khakamada announced that she would challenge Putin, youthful supporters gathered 2 million signatures on her petition in just 12 days.

But Russian election officials say they are investigating whether those signatures were collected legally. If not, she could be tossed off the ballot.

Khakamada's bid for the presidency may ultimately be doomed to failure. But she doesn't believe her battle for a democratic society is a lost cause.

She said there are two secrets to persevering against overwhelming odds: One is her samurai ancestors, the other her gender.

"You cannot kill a woman," she said, wryly. "We know how to survive. We are not afraid."

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