As Russia approaches parliamentary elections Sunday, its popular military campaign in Chechnya has given a huge boost to the election prospects of Kremlin allies.
That's one reason that officials have aggressively denied word of heavy Russian casualties this week in an apparent raid on the Chechen capital, Grozny. Domestic coverage has been favorable so far, but if losses begin to recall the disastrous 1994-'96 war, it could erode popular confidence.
Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev yesterday denounced the reports as "media provocation." He added, "There was no assault on Grozny and there won't be one."
But Reuters and Associated Press correspondents in the city reported counting the remains of more than 100 Russian soldiers, along with burning tanks.
"If any correspondent really saw tanks burning in Grozny, then these were Chechen tanks destroyed by Russian airstrikes," FSB domestic intelligence agency spokesman Alexander Zdanovich told Russian television.
It appears that the biggest winner of the poll may be a man who is not even running: President Boris Yeltsin. The leader who has dominated Russian politics since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union is eager to influence who will rule once his decade-long reign is over. The vote is seen as setting the stage for presidential elections in June.
The popularity of Mr. Yeltsin's hand-picked successor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has soared to 80 percent in opinion polls thanks to what has so far been a successful military campaign against the breakaway Chechen republic. The three-month operation has lifted the spirits of a nation depressed by economic and international decline.
Mr. Putin has given his blessing to the newly formed Unity party, which expected to draw up to 20 percent of Sunday's vote. Word of a serious setback in Chechnya could hurt its chances. Unity, and Putin's tough stance on Chechnya, have struck a nationalist cord, especially in the provinces and among voters nostalgic for the proud old days of the Soviet empire.
In addition to strong support for the war in Chechnya, the Kremlin is benefiting from a campaign marked by the worst mudslinging in post-Soviet history. "The Kremlin played an active role in this Duma [parliament] campaign.... I think they will have a giant celebration. Their enemies will be defeated," says Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Their gain is the direct loss of Yevgeny Primakov, a former prime minister, foreign minister, and spymaster who just four months ago was the country's most popular politician. The owlish Mr. Primakov was expected to gain as much as a quarter of the 450 seats in the Duma with his Fatherland-All Russia party. His main partner is Moscow's dynamic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. They seemed to be a winning pair, with the initial support of regional bosses, ample financial resources, and can-do reputations.
The Kremlin and its allies mobilized their media machine to discredit the pair. One of the main orchestrators was television station ORT, in which a major stake is held by Kremlin confidante and financier Boris Berezovsky. Primakov was portrayed in much of the press as an ailing old man and a flunky of the West. Luzhkov fared worse, with a news program accusing him of complicity in the 1996 murder of an American businessman. Luzhkov strongly denies the claim.
"The Kremlin's fear of its rivals is stronger than ever now because Yeltsin fears for his safety after the elections," says Dmitry Gavra, director of the St Petersburg Centre for Sociological Research. "The Communists are not dangerous to the Kremlin anymore. They have no chance of winning. But Fatherland is much more dangerous, because their victory would mean a radical change of the elite and status quo," says Mr. Gavra.
Pundits are predicting the Communist Party, the main opposition during the past 10 years, will win 20 to 25 percent of Sunday's vote. This is roughly what they won four years ago, but they can no longer count on support of allied groups to dominate the Duma.
Analysts predict a party of economic reformers called the Union of Right Wing Forces will garner 5 to 8 percent. Fatherland is projected gain 8 to 15 percent. The same is forecast for Yabloko, the closest thing Russia has to a Western-style liberal party.
Another big winner may be cynicism. Half of Russia's more than 107 million registered voters are expected not to participate, having lost faith in politicians because of corruption and economic decline over the past decade.
"I don't see any point in voting," says Sergei Portnyagin, a sports trainer. "They're all the same: bad."
However dirty the campaign has been, some political analysts see a positive consolidation of Russia's post-Communist political system. Mr. McFaul and others note this is the third parliamentary election organized without major mishap. Political institutions such as the Duma may be weak, but they still function.
*There are 27 political groups registered to run in Russia's Dec. 19 parliamentary elections. Those expected to do well include:
Communist Party: The main opposition voice during President Yeltsin's 10-year reign. Party leader Gennady Zyuganov is expected to run as a presidential candidate in June.
Unity: The emblem of this new party is a bear, and its appeal to voters is a restoration of order and vigorous leadership. The party is expected to draw the support of both nationalists and liberal economic reformers. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to use the group to run for president.
Fatherland - All Russia: The centrist coalition counts among its leading candidates Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, and the governor of St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city. Fatherland counts on support from some heavyweight regional governors.
Yabloko: This liberal party, whose name means "apple," stands for the fight against corruption and a pro-Western economic course. Its small but steady following tends to be urban and middle class. Yabloko leaders include Grigory Yavlinsky and former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin.
Union of Right-Wing Forces: A coalition headed by various former architects of Russia's now sluggish Western economic reforms. The alliance mainly appeals to urban youths and affluent professionals. Leaders include former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and ex-First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society