Russian voters hand mandate to Kremlin

Results of Sunday's election lay the foundation for a Putin

"We woke up in a new country," the tycoon Boris Berezovsky declared yesterday, after reading the latest results of Russia's third post-Soviet parliamentary election.

Mr. Berezovsky, a longtime Kremlin insider on his way to winning his own Duma seat, had reason to exult. The pro-Kremlin Unity party - which didn't exist three months ago - garnered one-quarter of the votes counted, running a close second to the Communists. The Union of Right Wing Forces (SPS), a Unity ally, took about 9 percent. "The new Duma will be more controllable, less oppositionist, than the previous one," says Nikolai Petrov, with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "This really alters the political balance of forces in this country."

But analysts caution that if the Duma vote demonstrates anything, it is that Russia's political sands can shift very suddenly.

The war in Chechnya, influential in this ballot, could be a critical factor in the presidential election next June. Sunday's vote shows the country almost evenly divided between hard-core opposition to the Kremlin and supporters of President Boris Yeltsin's chosen successor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Prime Minister wasn't on the ballot Sunday but gave public blessings to Unity, a party created to give Mr. Putin a parliamentary base. He has been riding high in opinion polls, thanks to the largely successful military campaign to reassert control over the breakaway Caucasus republic of Chechnya.

Sunday's result launches Putin's presidential campaign nicely.

But another 25 percent of voters backed Russia's unsinkable Communist Party, giving the party its best performance ever in a parliamentary election.

"The Kremlin created Unity to defeat the Communists, but that hasn't worked," says Vilen Ivanov, an analyst with the independent Institute of Social and Political Studies in Moscow. "The Communists are stronger than ever."

Another surprise, which may deeply impact the coming presidential contest, was the relatively dismal performance of Fatherland-All Russia (OVR), the vehicle for Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, and several powerful regional leaders. The bloc took just 11 percent of the popular vote, though many forecasts had given it almost twice that.

Last Friday Mr. Primakov officially launched his own presidential campaign, though he may now be wondering if his fortunes can be turned around. Just four months ago he was rated Russia's most popular politician. He has since been overtaken by the phenomenal success of Putin, whose public approval level topped 75 percent this month, a post-Soviet high.

Mr. Luzhkov was handily reelected as Mayor of Moscow in concurrent voting, with more than 70 percent backing. But he expressed bitterness about OVR's weak showing in the nationwide Duma contest. He blamed the Kremlin's near-monopoly of Russian television - which was fully deployed in support of Unity - and the savage mudslinging that characterized the three-month campaign.

"By their unprecedentedly dirty methods the authorities again got the results they wanted," Luzhkov said.

"I have been studying Russian election campaigns for 10 years, and I find this Duma campaign to have been the worst from the point of view of obvious violations of the rules and abuses by state authority," says Michael McFaul, a Russia specialist with Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.

For Berezovsky, a businessman close to the Yeltsin family, winning a seat in Russia's powerful lower house also conveys parliamentary immunity. Less than a year ago he was facing an arrest warrant on charges of embezzlement and money-laundering issued by the government of then-Prime Minister Primakov.

Half the Duma's 450 seats are determined by proportional representation through nationwide voting on party lists. A party must win at least 5 percent to be gain entry to the Duma.

Only six groups surmounted that 5 percent barrier Sunday. They included one major surprise: The liberal SPS, led by former prime ministers Yegor Gaidar and Sergei Kiriyenko, was widely expected to be wiped out by a Russian electorate furious over a decade of painful and futile market reforms. But the bloc finished with almost 9 percent of the popular vote, giving it a solid place in the new Duma. The ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky won around 6 percent, as did the social-democratic Yabloko party of Grigory Yavlinsky.

"This Duma will be less complex than before, with fewer parties," says Andrei Zubov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow.

"Everything depends on how the parties choose up alliances. But on the whole, it looks like a victory for the Kremlin."

The other half of Duma seats are chosen by single-mandate local constituency races. It will take some time before the outcomes of all those races become known and are factored into the overall political balance.

But analysts say the Communists, who enjoy strong grass-roots organization across Russia's 11 time zones, are likely to pick up more constituency seats than anyone else.

"These elections were just the warm up for the presidential contest that's coming," says Mr. Zubov.

"Putin looks very strong as a result. But it's just the first round. Things change very fast in this country."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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