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Russian Army Wields Clout in Hopes of Electing Officers : Politics: Commanders use soldiers and resources to advance their own candidacies for Parliament seats.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The young musicians of the Moscow Military District ensemble were more than a little miffed when rehearsals were canceled for five days running so they would be free to work on their commanders’ election campaigns.

But irritation quickly turned to anger when the recruits were reportedly conscripted into breaking the law in an eleventh-hour drive to forge 2 million voter registration cards to qualify military candidates for the Dec. 17 parliamentary ballot.

“We weren’t even told who the signatures were for,” complained one 19-year-old soldier, resentful of the vote-rigging role he said he was forced to perform.

“We were just handed the lists,” the musician recalled as fellow recruits at his barracks nodded in confirmation. “It was an official order from top commanders, so what else could we do?”

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Old habits die hard in Russia, and that senior officers still had the clout to compel soldiers to fabricate voting rosters comes as little surprise to those wary of an army angling to gain political power.

Russian and international monitors report that military hardware has been deployed to intimidate voters in the Volgograd region, and one general running for office has scheduled maneuvers in his Siberian district to ensure that a large pool of soldiers will be on hand to cast their ballots for him on election day.

Heeding an appeal by Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev for a louder voice for the army in government affairs and state spending, more than 120 active-duty officers submitted the required 200,000 endorsing signatures to get on the ballot for elections to Russia’s 450-seat Duma, the lower house of Parliament.

It was presumably for those Grachev loyalists that the district military ensemble and unknown numbers of other recruits were directed to copy signatures from old Soviet-era voter lists to provide enough endorsements ahead of the Oct. 22 nomination deadline.

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None of the military candidates was disqualified during a review of the nomination petitions that ended Wednesday, although the party of one prominent retired general, former coup leader Alexander V. Rutskoi, was excluded on a technicality.

Rutskoi, who is appealing the decision, and other career officers who only recently mothballed their olive drab have been stumping on a platform of law and order and promising a more stable Russia under the “firm hand” of ex-officers.

Retired generals such as Alexander I. Lebed and Valentin I. Varennikov have taken aim at the nearly 30 million voters whose livelihoods depend on defense with their message that reform has destroyed the army and Russia’s status as a superpower.

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The generals, all fierce opponents of President Boris N. Yeltsin, appear to be using the Duma vote as a trial run ahead of the June presidential race.

“These candidates are trying to implant in the minds of voters that the military is the foundation of security, and that only through them can any kind of stabilization be achieved,” says Olga I. Tarasova, a political analyst for the weekly magazine Expert.

Most Russian voters view the involvement of military candidates as nothing unusual, she says, as the army was held in great respect during the Communist era.

“To some extent, the military candidacies could have a positive influence if they enhance law and order,” Tarasova says. “On the other hand, excessive focus on order could lead to dictatorship.”

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It is that fear of a creeping militarization of the power structure that worries outside analysts of the Russian political scene.

Only two years ago, Rutskoi, a decorated hero of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, led an armed rebellion against Yeltsin that ended in a tank battle outside the riverfront White House that was then the seat of Parliament. More than 130 people died in the clash.

Varennikov, also seeking a Duma seat, was one of the dozen top Soviet officials involved in the unsuccessful attempt to overthrow President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1991.

Though recent events have shown the potential dangers of military influence on the political process, Yeltsin observed last month that he saw no problem with the creation of a “military-democratic bloc” inside the Duma as long as it remained loyal to him.

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The constitution largely authored by Yeltsin poses no barrier to military candidacies, although those who succeed in winning seats will have to resign their commissions at the start of their terms.

A few of the military contenders have aligned themselves with reform-minded parties and movements.

But the majority represent conservative nationalist views that analysts of Russia’s evolving post-Communist political structure fear could endanger the democratic advances of the past four years.

And that the two dozen generals and 100 or so other active-duty officers on the ballot wield tremendous power over the rank and file has prompted concern that subordinate soldiers will be at the whim of candidate-commanders.

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“There is tremendous opportunity for abuse of office,” said Sergei K. Oznobishchev, director of the Moscow Center for International Security Problems.

Most government employees running for office have access to what might be considered unfair advantages such as state cars, telecommunications, copying facilities and mailing privileges, “but the official structure with the greatest potential for election law violations is the military,” said Michael Caputo, Russia consultant for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a Washington-based monitoring agency.

A key test of the maturity of Russian democracy will be whether clear violations of the election law and obvious instances of abuse of military power are prosecuted, Caputo said.

That military candidates have at their disposal inappropriate means of influencing an election was apparent during the recent municipal government vote in the southwestern Russian city of Volgograd, Oznobishchev noted.

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In that early October balloting, the local army garrison commander ordered truckloads of soldiers and weapons stationed around polling places in what the Itar-Tass news agency described as an attempt at “psychological pressure” on behalf of 25 army candidates on the ballot. Despite the displays of force, none of the servicemen won.

Election watchdog agencies have condemned the Volgograd incident and expressed the hope that it was an isolated case of excess.

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But as the monitoring offices receive reports of abuses such as the falsified nomination petitions allegedly prepared by the army musicians in Moscow, the observers have expressed doubts that the December vote will meet their standards of free and fair.

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“There are several stories making their way to us which we are quite concerned about,” said David Merkel, director of the International Republican Institute’s monitoring program in Russia.

Merkel said election observers have been made aware of one general’s scheduling of a large military exercise in his Novosibirsk district for mid-December. Because army recruits vote wherever they happen to be stationed during elections, “we presume this has been arranged so they can all vote for him,” Merkel said.

He declined to name the candidate involved, noting that one aim of the ongoing observations of election activity is to encourage self-reform.

But with only six weeks before the vote and increasing reports of unseemly military pressure, the monitors say they doubt that serious course corrections can be made in time.

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