Stavropol - I first heard about the Stavropol branch of the ultra-nationalist Russian National Unity party (RNE) two years ago from Yury Zakharovich, a friend who works for Time magazine.
"They're well-organized," he told me. "They don't try to draw attention to themselves, but their influence on local people and on the military is strong. Entire garrisons and Cossack villages have joined them. The thing is, in Moscow, hardly anyone knows about this, and the local authorities just turn a blind eye."
It seemed hard to believe, and made me want to meet these people. That wasn't so easy. I had to get permission to meet Andrei Dudinov, the Stavropol RNE leader, from national RNE leader Alexander Barkashov's press secretary. In Moscow, the RNE is banned, but I got a phone number and managed to organize through the Moscow nationalists my visit to Stavropol. They asked me not to distort the facts and to write about what I saw objectively, which, as a journalist, I could only agree with.
The RNE emblem, resembling a swastika and banned in Moscow, hangs outside the organization's regional office in the center of Stavropol. The emblems are a frequent sight in Stavropol.
An athletic-looking young man came to meet me.
"Andrei Viktorovich [Dudinov] is at the TV studios giving an interview," he said. "Why don't you go take a wander round town."
I asked permission to stay and was taken inside but told not to talk to anyone. Leaflets were stacked up all around. People came and went. A middle-aged man didn't leave my side, and I asked him to show me what the local press was writing about RNE, which he happily did.
"You people in Moscow don't like us, but here, people are more understanding," he said.
Articles in Vechernyaya Stavropol, the official newspaper of the regional authorities, were positive in tone. The man told me it was because of that paper's articles that city mayor Mikhail Kuzmin received a harsh lecture from Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo.
Vechernyaya Stavropol also published election campaign material from the National bloc, which includes RNE. Some 80,000 copies of the campaign message were published - almost enough for every family in town.
"You have no problems printing all this?" I asked.
"No, we pay, and we print however much we need," he said.
At that moment, a trim, well-dressed man appeared, introduced himself as Dudinov, and my interview began.
RJ: First, tell us something about yourself.
AD: I was born in Stavropol, in a working-class family. I went to a technical college and worked as an electrician before doing my military service, which I did in the Interior Ministry troops in Moscow. In 1991, I graduated from the history department of the Stavropol pedagogical institute. I've been in the RNE since 1992.
RJ: You don't have any official employment. What do you and your organization live on?
AD: I and another five or six people working full-time for RNE receive some financial aid. It's not much money. Most of our people work out of conviction and on a voluntary basis. We also receive some money from businessmen, bankers, and others who share our views. We don't have many representatives of big business, but we've got enough support from small- and medium-sized businesses. We also have people from the law enforcement agencies, the unemployed, teachers, cossacks, all kinds of people, really. The average age of our members is 30 to 40. As for the young people, they're usually working-out in the sports clubs. Most of our members are Russians, some Ukrainians and Belorussians. But amongst other groups, there are people who share our views and help us, for example, representatives of the Armenian diaspora, Muslims, and even patriotically-inclined Jews.
RJ: The Stavropol branch of RNE is said to be the biggest in Russia. Is this true?
AD: I don't agree. There are sizeable RNE branches in Perm, Voronezh and Krasnodar. The RNE is present wherever Russians' rights are trampled on, and as our rights are trampled on everywhere, the RNE is present throughout Russia.
RJ: How many members are in the regional branch?
AD: Six thousand is the figure for last year. Now there are more members, but we've got more important priorities than keeping exact track of statistics. We have situations, for example, where, say, a battalion commander from a local garrison asks for our literature and says that his entire battalion wants to join the RNE. We would consider the officers, the real activists, to be members, and the rest we could call sympathizers.
RJ: So, you have strong ties with the local garrisons?
AD: We have normal, good relations. RNE is the most popular party among the military, especially in the Interior Ministry forces. That's despite the fact that ministry officials do their best to put obstacles in our way.
RJ: How do you get your information to the soldiers?
AD: Political agitation is banned in the garrisons. But outside their walls, we are free to, say, hand out our literature. Lately, we've been doing that a lot less. Usually it's officers who come to us instead. We talk with them, make them members, and give them guidelines for future propaganda work.
RJ: How many officers are RNE members?
AD: I don't want to give exact figures. Once I told a journalist we had good relations with Interior Ministry troops and then the North Caucasus district press secretary came and said we weren't to give such interviews. Quite a few local garrison commanders are RNE members, regiment commanders, battalion commanders.
RJ: What about the so-called political officers in the garrisons, do they cooperate with you?
AD: They're the toughest group to work with. They think they're cleverer than everyone else and it's hard for them to rethink their opinions. It's easier to build relations with the combat officers.
RJ: What's your electorate?
AD: We estimate that at least 10 percent of the population supports us. We think we could get 20-25 percent of voters behind us.
RJ: What do you base these figures on?
AD: We have a well-developed network. Almost 70 percent of towns and villages have an RNE cell. Only the Communists have a more organized structure. They get their support from pensioners, party committees. We get ours from a conscious commitment. Many Communists in the region also sympathize with us and help us pass along our message. We hope to draw voters from among their ranks. Many pensioners are now leaving the Communist Party and joining us.
RJ: But Barkashov says the KPRF is RNE's enemy.
AD: Yes, it is, but our message is getting through to them, too. Everyone is reading our literature. Since September 1998, we've printed 800,000 leaflets and newspapers in the region. But I think that's still too little. Now we're doing more.
RJ: Will RNE candidates be standing for elections in all seats in southern Russia?
AD: Definitely in the Stavropol and Krasnodar regions. In the so-called "national republics," things are more complicated, not much better than in Chechnya. Russians are being steadily pushed out of all official and law enforcement posts.
RJ: How are relations with the Stavropol authorities?
AD: Fine. I know the governor personally. Sometimes the authorities turn to us for help. For example, we have an agreement with local forestry officials about forest protection. We carry out raids with the forest guards and fine people caught violating the laws. Twenty five percent of the fines collected then goes to finance our activities. Often, we get calls to help organize youth competitions like the military game Zarnitsa. We helped organize such games in three districts this year. Giving young people a military-patriotic education is one of our priorities. It teaches them skills that will be useful in the future when the country will be run by a "national" government.
That was where the interview ended. It's difficult to judge just how objective the RNE representatives were, talking about their activities. What is clear is that they do represent a significant force in the region.
Col. Andrei Skurikhin from the legal information and public relations department of the chief military prosecutor's office later listened to the interview.
"By involving military personnel in their activities, the RNE is breaking the law 'On military personnel,'" he said. "Chapter 2, Article 9 of the law says that military personnel have the right to 'belong to public associations, including religious associations, that do not have political aims.' But RNE is a political organization."
Col. Leonid Malakhovsky from the Interior Ministry troops press service called Dudinov's interview "just another provocation."
"The competent services checked the information that our troops were involved in RNE," Malakhovsky said. "Yes, the RNE tried to distribute their leaflets in our garrisons, but they were given short shrift."
There's no reason not to believe Malakhovsky. But then again, what if the officers from the "competent services" themselves support RNE? That, after all, was what Dudinov was saying so confidently in Stavropol.
The Stavropol authorities' soft stance on the RNE also calls attention to itself.
"The RNE is officially registered here just like, say, LDPR or KPRF, and they have the right to hold demonstrations, meetings, to spread their message," said Alexander Pavlyuk, head of the Stavropol regional authorities administrative department.
"Unfortunately, RNE is already a very real force, and it will yet show itself," said Vadim Solovyev, editor of Nezavisimaya Voyennaya Obozreniya (Independent Military Review). "The authorities underestimate its influence on society and on the military. But time will pass and we could well wake up in a red-brown Russia."