OSCAR-winning filmmaker and famous actor Nikita Mikhalkov has no political experience. Yet he is the No. 2 candidate on the parliamentary ticket of the current Russian establishment, right after Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin himself.
Russian politicians, coping with a horde of weak political parties and voter bafflement, are campaigning for parliamentary elections Dec. 17 the modern way - with celebrity power.
If Mr. Mikhalkov's familiar name fails to add popular appeal to the Our Home Is Russia bloc, then the same ticket also boasts a TV movie star, Mikhail Boyarsky, a rave with young women. And for their parents: Edita Pyekha, the most popular Soviet singer of the 1950s.
At least 36 nationally famous actors, dancers, poets, singers, musicians, stage and film producers, and a circus magician are adorning party tickets as candidates to the Duma, or lower house of parliament. Very few of them have previous political experience.
The celebrity factor is one indication of how Russian politicians and elites imagine that voters minds' work. Half of the seats in the Duma are elected from party lists, meaning voters vote for a national party, and the number of votes determines how many candidates on the party list win seats. So a famous or appealing name on a party list can improve the prospects of the whole list.
''The ideologies are all nearly the same. Even the communists vote for private property and the market. And the democrats vote sometimes for stronger government regulations. So people turn to the portraits of personalities,'' says Vladimir Bauer, Duma deputy and independent candidate for reelection.
So far, 43 parties or blocs have submitted the required 200,000 signatures to register their candidate lists - from ''Our Home Is Russia'' to ''Onward, Russia!'' to ''Stable Russia'' to the ''Beer Lovers' Party.''
The only party that clearly has a public identity beyond the reputation of its leaders is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation - the successor to what used to be the only party in the Soviet Union. But then the Communists have a couple famous actors on their candidate lists too. One, Nikolai Gubenko, is a well-known actor who was a Soviet culture minister under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
A magician at the celebrated Moscow circus, Emil Renard-Kio, is no longer a candidate since his Conservative Party failed to qualify last week. But that's just as well, since Mr. Renard-Kio is in Japan through the entire campaign season.
''Everybody wants to have one singer, one dancer, one general,'' says political analyst Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. She sees this as a function of the relative unimportance of the Duma itself in Russia's president-centered system. ''It's a laughingstock,'' she says.
The immunity factor
There's a seamier side to the candidate lists as well.
After vetting the list of registered candidates, the Interior Ministry informed the Central Election Commission that 87 of them have served sentences for criminal convictions.
Not all of them are in fact criminals. At least one, the press secretary to Vladimir Zhirinovsky's radical nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, was mistaken for an ex-con with the same name and birthday. At least nine others were tried for actions that are no longer considered criminal, such as political dissent or Soviet ''crimes'' such as profitmaking.
But most of the 87 names on the list are people with criminal pasts in the usual sense, according to election commission officials. ''The question is the respectability of our state Duma,'' said one. ''I believe that the movements and blocs should be more attentive to whom they include.''
Mr. Zhirinovsky's party topped the list with 11 criminals (plus the one case of mistaken identity). All 11 were bounced out of the party at Zhirinovsky's insistence.
Still another category of candidate has a keener self-interest than most in winning office: avoiding jail. Duma members have complete immunity from criminal prosecution. At least three would-be candidates are awaiting trial for theft or fraud.
Sergei Mavrodi is already a Duma deputy, elected while awaiting trial for tax evasion after allegedly bilking thousands of investors out of millions of dollars in the MMM investment scheme last year. His trial was suspended by his election, and he is running again.
Valentina Solovyeva is awaiting trial for her scheme promising to deliver new cars to investors six months after they make a relatively small payment. Most of the cars never materialized. Because she is in jail, she may be kept from candidacy by the requirement to register in person at the election commission.