RUSSIAN Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has stepped out of President Boris Yeltsin's shadow and onto center stage to help create his country's emerging political establishment.
With the blessing of President Yeltsin, the prime minister has announced a new centrist political bloc to contest next December's parliamentary elections. At the same time, Yeltsin has welcomed another new political bloc, formed by Parliamentary Speaker Ivan Rybkin, which promises to be a kind of centrist ''tame opposition.''
The formation of the two groups -- although both are still tentative affairs with no formal members or platforms yet -- is seen as a bid by the Kremlin to maneuver its opponents off the centrist high ground of Russian politics as the election campaign heats up.
Leading a highly visible political faction is a risky move for Mr. Chernomyrdin, a former Soviet industrial manager whose appeal during the past 30 months of his stewardship of the economy has been his technocratic reliability.
Serving the master
But by setting up a steering group on Saturday to plan the launch of a center-right electoral grouping, Chernomyrdin is doing more than building his own political future: He is also serving his master, Yeltsin, as he seeks to lay some political foundations for Yeltsin's unpopular presidency.
Parliamentary Speaker Rybkin is personally loyal to the president, although he is a former Communist Party official and now belongs to the conservative Agrarian faction, an opposition group.
''Yeltsin's interest is in not putting all his eggs in one basket,'' says one Western diplomat. ''As always, he is keeping his options open.''
Chernomyrdin, playing on his reputation for cautious solidity, is focusing his appeal on the need for ''security, stability, and development,'' he told a group of World War II veterans last week.
''We live in a society that keeps going hot and cold all the time,'' he said. ''We are in a rush all the time. We should be more balanced and closer to the center.''
He also promised to bring together ''businessmen who are familiar with the most complex problems of economics, state management, finances, and free enterprise,'' and who favor continued free-market reforms.
On his bloc's steering committee are the directors of some of the country's largest companies, governors of important regions, and a number of Cabinet ministers.
Mr. Rybkin, on the other hand, is expected to seek support from his own Agrarian Party and other groups unenthusiastic about Russia's economic reforms. For the government, the main attraction of such a centrist bloc is that it could eat into the support of the Communist Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party.
Benched from play?
The emergence of the two blocs has been most angrily decried by the politicians who see themselves as political targets. Grigory Yavlinksy, for example, a reformist liberal who heads the Yabloko parliamentary faction, is clearly uncomfortable at the prospect of being pushed to the margins and branded a ''radical.''
The maneuver, he told the Interfax news agency, looked like ''a puppet theater with a producer who has received the latest script ... and who believes that one can create left-wing and right-wing forces in society and appoint their leaders.''
Izvestiya, a liberal daily newspaper, shared that analysis in an article by commentator Sergei Chugayev. ''On the face of it, the two blocs should compete, but in reality they are two branches of one party, the party of power,'' he argued.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Mr. Zhirinovsky told a press conference that he did not expect the blocs to hold together and argued that ''if blocs are created from above, it means the authorities are in their death throes.''
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov was equally dismissive. ''They can have a party of power, a party of corporate interests, or a party of money bags, but they cannot deceive Russia,'' he argued.
Yegor Gaidar, leader of the reformist Russia's Choice parliamentary group, was more circumspect, perhaps because Chernomyrdin, who succeeded him as prime minister, has been following his economic recipes almost to the letter. Mr. Gaidar held out the prospect of cooperation with the new bloc.
With most Russians yearning for a predictable and stable life, Chernomyrdin is betting that his image as a rather wooden technocrat will be only a minor hindrance. But the lack of a sparkling politician at the head of either of the two new blocs could prove their undoing.
''The risk they run,'' said one Western political analyst, ''is that the electorate will be in a more extremist mood, looking for an iron hand.''
In that case, all the support in the world from the Kremlin will not be enough.