Moscow, 27 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Kremlin and President Boris Yeltsin had only two days to celebrate the victory in the State Duma, that last Friday approved Sergei Kiriyenko as Russia's new Prime Minister. Then, Sunday night, as the vote count in the Krasnoyarsk gubernatorial election proceeded, it was clear Yeltsin opponent Aleksandr Lebed was completing the first stage of a political comeback, winning the most votes in first-round balloting, in an election that some observers see as a rehearsal for the 2000 presidential race.
Lebed received more than 45 percent of the vote. Incumbent Valery Zubov, followed with 35 percent, and Communist candidate Pyotr Romanov trailed with 13 percent.
Lebed has said he wants to become governor to gain a powerful launching pad for his president bid for 2000. Failure to win would have virtually eliminated him from the presidential contest - which would have greatly relieved the Kremlin - which has looked at the Krasnoyarsk poll with increasing anxiety.
Yesterday's result, with Lebed leading by ten percent, was a surprise for observers. Pre-electoral polls had put Zubov ahead or neck-and-neck with Lebed.
Lebed himself said today that he "had not expected" to attract so many votes in Krasnoyarsk. The region, located in the heart of Siberia, and stretching from the Arctic circle to almost the border with Mongolia, is one-fourth the size of the U.S., and is rich in natural resources and industrial complexes.
Turnout, usually poor in Russian elections, was rather high in Krasnoyarsk, topping 61 percent. Lebed drew strong support in rural communities and small towns, while Zubov obtained more than 50 percent of the vote in the city of Krasnoyarsk.
Before casting his ballot, Lebed said he had the impression that "even people usually indifferent to politics are interested in this election...and this gives me hope."
As neither Lebed nor Zubov won more than the 50 percent required for an outright victory, they will take part in a runoff vote. The local electoral commission chairman, Georgy Kostrykin, said the second round of vote will probably take place May 17.
As in the Duma vote on Kiriyenko, the Communists seem to be holding the key of the outcome of the second round of vote in Krasnoyarsk.
Zubov had the local media on his side during the campaign, but, after results showed the gap between Lebed and Zubov widening last night, local television commentators admitted that the situation in the second round "will be very difficult for the incumbent governor."
Vyacheslav Novikov, an analyst with the Krasnoyarsk Center for Strategic Studies, told France's Agence France Presse news agency that "after yesterday's crushing win over a governor who was widely made favorite for the ballot, Lebed is virtually assured of winning the second round." Novikov added that most of those who voted for Romanov are likely to vote for Lebed, not Zubov, in the second round.
In Moscow, the parliamentary leader of the Our Home Is Russia faction, Aleksandr Shokhin, explained the observer's prediction, saying, "Romanov's electorate is expressing a vote of protest over chronic wage arrears and idle factories and it is unlikely that it would support Zubov, even if the Communist party leadership would advise voters to do so."
Shokhin should know. The Duma vote on Friday shows that about 40 Communist deputies disregarded party discipline and the leadership's call, and voted to support Kiriyenko.
Such an analysis is likely to ring a warning bell for the Kremlin, more than two years before the presidential elections. A candidate of the so-called "party of power" has not been decided yet, and Yeltsin has said, so far, that he does not plan to run again.
In 1996, Lebed finished a strong third on a law-and-order ticket in the first round of the presidential election. Most observers agree that Yeltsin won in the second round of vote also because part of Lebed's 15-million electorate shifted preferences to Yeltsin, answering to the retired general's call to do so.
It's now also known that during the 1996 presidential campaign, Lebed had secret financial backing from some of the same bankers who were financing Yeltsin's re-election bid.
After the election, the Kremlin briefly embraced Lebed and Yeltsin named him Security Council Secretary, but Lebed lasted only four months, before being dismissed from the post amidst political infighting. The Kremlin clearly fears Lebed, described as an "unpredictable" politician without a clear economic program, and strong nationalistic preferences.
Shokhin and other political analysts in Moscow say that, if Lebed becomes the governor of Krasnoyarsk, he will gain a political and industrial stronghold, a powerful seat in the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, and will, therefore, "have a very strong chance of becoming one of the strongest challengers in the year 2000."
Political analyst Igor Bunin said in an interview on NTV TV last night that "Lebed is very dangerous for the Kremlin, because, if he wins, the Kremlin will have to decide quickly who could become the candidate of the 'party of power.' And, the choice will likely be among the two men who are considered now as the two strongest candidates: former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov."
The Kremlin is unlikely to welcome such a situation. Chernomyrdin already announced his intention to run in 2000. Most analysts said when he was sacked in March that his display of this intention, even before an official announcement, was one of the main reasons behind Yeltsin's decision to dismiss him as head of government. Most political analysts in Moscow say that it is likely that Yeltsin would prefer to wait, until at least the end of this year, before saying whom he sees as his successor.
Luzhkov has, so far, denied that he has presidential ambitions, but observers agree that most of his political actions and most economic activities carried out by a holding company he controls with links to the Moscow City government are aimed at creating a powerful launching platform for his election campaign, with or without the Kremlin's approval. The holding company has strong ties to industrial, financial and media interests.
Political analyst Leonid Rodzikhovsky told NTV yesterday that "Lebed is very dangerous for Yeltsin. ...If he wins in Krasnoyarsk, the only real candidate of the 'party of power' could become Luzhkov, because he's the only one who can stop Lebed in a presidential election."
Boris Berezovsky, the business magnate who is supporting Lebed in Krasnoyarsk, would probably disagree with such a reading. Berezovsky has said his support is aimed at setting up a counterweight to Luzhkov. In Berezovsky's opinion, both men will be courting the same nationalist-leaning electorate in the year 2000, and it will be good if "they would be left to fight among themselves."
The first channel of Russia's television, ORT, controlled by Berezovsky, has given Lebed glowing coverage during the Krasnoyarsk campaign, and most observers say that Berezovsky has been also funding Lebed's campaign. Lebed has denied the allegations, saying that the tycoon "is playing his game and I am playing mine. We simply ended up on the same side of the board, against Luzhkov."
Since the presidential election in 1996, Berezovsky has claimed to be playing king-maker in the Kremlin, thanks to his connections with influential officials, including Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko. However, there are strong signs lately that Yeltsin is growing tired of the tycoon's claims. Russian media have reported that Yeltsin recently warned Berezovsky to "stop his political intrigues or leave the country."
But, the Kremlin seems to have limited its activity in the Krasnoyarsk election to worried political watching, and it seems unlikely that it will be able to activate the electorate in Zubov's support during the next two weeks.
By contrast, Luzhkov flew to Krasnoyarsk for a highly publicized visit in support of Zubov last week. However, the support of Luzhkov and other influential Moscow allies, particularly Berezovsky's main business rival, Oneximbank, have not seemed to play in Zubov's favor.
Image makers were brought in from Moscow to polish up the strategy of the incumbent, a former professor, who speaks fluent English and spent a year teaching in an American university, but, who is regarded as a high-brow intellectual among Russia's regional bosses.
The strategy - based on presenting Lebed as an outsider who does not care about the region and Zubov as a local man who gets things done -- seems to have backfired, together with the intense campaign against Lebed in media controlled by the present authorities.
Zubov's press secretary, Yuri Vasilev, told the Moscow-based English-language daily "Moscow Times" that the campaign was not about real problems like the region's economy or the disastrous levels of pollution.
Lebed easily turned aside accusations of being uninterested in Krasnoyarsk's problems. During an interview yesterday, Lebed seemed sure of himself, and repeated his ready-made response to the accusation. He said: "there is no reason for me to try and make something for Russia, if I cannot manage to make Krasnoyarsk blossom."
The Krasnoyarsk electorate, starved for some good news, as are many other Russian regions, seemed to care little about Lebed's lack of a real economic program, and to be more impressed by his military record and by the perception that he is a decisive leader.
Shokhin said in Moscow that the three-million people living in the Krasnoyarsk region may have decided that Lebed's strategy: "now governor and soon president, could help them solving many problems."