A Russian Dream Team?

Russia's most popular politician joined Moscow mayor in coalition Aug.17.

Out of Russia's fractured political scene a Dream Team has emerged, an election coalition of leaders with the charisma, ideas, and organizational clout to unite the foundering country and lead it into the next century.

Or so they're saying.

Russia's most popular politician, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, declared Aug. 17 that he is joining forces with the Fatherland movement of ambitious Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and All Russia, an alliance of powerful governors.

"I was invited to head the [parliamentary] bloc of Fatherland-All Russia. Today I officially confirm my acceptance of this invitation," Mr. Primakov told a crowded press conference in Moscow.

Analysts say Russia would likely see less political upheaval under Primakov's leadership, even though it may also mean strained relations with the West.

"It's a trade-off: With Prima-kov we might have a more stable Russia, but also a slightly more anti-West Russia," says Marshall Goldman, director of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Primakov is a compromiser. But the compromise is usually at the expense of the US," he adds.

Primakov is a former journalist, spy, and Russian foreign minister, who was prime minister for nine months until being fired by President Boris Yeltsin in May. Primakov appears to have done very little as head of the government following the economic crash one year ago. Average Russians think well of him, and since his dismissal at Mr. Yeltsin's hand, public opinion surveys show him the country's most popular political figure.

As premier, Primakov worked with and was respected by most factions in parliament, including the dominant Communists. The general impression is that he is a left-winger who would chart a more anti-Western foreign policy, increase state intervention in the economy, and step up social-welfare spending.

"Some in the West are worried that Primakov is backed by the Communists, but this is not a major problem. There is no politician in Russia today who doesn't have some scent of communism about him," says Gennady Burbulis, a former Kremlin aide, now an independent deputy in the Duma, or lower house of parliament. "Perhaps they suspect him because he visibly lacks enthusiasm for Western ways of doing things."

With the addition of Primakov, the coalition appears to have all the elements needed to make a strong showing in the parliamentary vote scheduled for Dec. 19 and put up a champion capable of winning the presidential poll slated for June.

Mr. Luzhkov controls the financial resources of Moscow and has influence with some national media, crucial for mounting any sustained electoral effort. All Russia includes Mintimer Shamiyev, president of the populous Volga republic of Tatarstan and Vladimir Yakovlev, governor of St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city.

But for all its surface strengths, analysts warn the coalition is a mass of contradictions bound together by naked ambition. When he was premier, Primakov called for strengthening central government by ending local elections and letting Moscow appoint governors. This is not likely to sit well with the elected governors of All Russia.

"They need Primakov to paper over the cracks in what is essentially a very artificial alliance," says Mr. Burbulis. "But there are too many strong personalities in this group. The chances are they will fall out among themselves before the presidential elections."

There is an old Russian saying, "Two bears cannot share the same lair." Luzhkov, who has spent several years preparing his own Kremlin bid, has said that he would be willing to accept Primakov as the group's candidate for president. Primakov made such a compromise more likely Aug. 17 by calling for reform of the state power structure, transferring some current presidential powers to the prime minister and the legislature, and possibly recreating the post of vice president. Luzhkov might be content with such a position, if it leads to the top.

"If power is divided more evenly between the Kremlin and the government, it might not matter who is the presidential candidate and who is promised the prime minister's post," says Andrei Kortunov, director of the Moscow Scientific Fund, a private think tank.

One view of the new coalition's potential says it can go the full distance and capture the Kremlin because its key figure, Primakov, is disinterested in personal power.

"Primakov is a patriot who wants to save his country, not a power-grubber," says Vladimir Shtol, editor of The Observer, a left-wing news weekly. "He has a set of definite ideas about what he wants to do. He has joined this coalition because it can create the possibility to implement his program."

The threat of a Primakov-Luzhkov axis has prompted panic in the Kremlin. There is widespread speculation that Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin earlier this month for failing to prevent Luzhkov from hooking up with the governors in All Russia. Yeltsin named Stepashin's replacement, Vladimir Putin, as the Kremlin's candidate for president.

But few analysts believe that Mr. Putin stands much chance of winning in a free and fair contest. His only allies so far are a handful of liberal politicians who are blamed in the public mind for the ill effects of market reforms culminating in last August's economic crash.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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