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Russia: New Political Party Makes Moscow's Mayor Its Leader

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 22 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - The registration deadline for political movements wishing to contest Russia's next parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 19, 1999, expired at midnight on Saturday. The last movement able to meet it was the newly-formed movement "Otechestvo," (Fatherland) that on the same day held its founding congress and elected as its leader Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Russian media called the achievement "impressive." According to Russian law, to obtain formal registration a political organization must hand the justice ministry its charter and other funding documentation, and the ministry has one month to examine them and decide.

In the case of "Otechestvo," documentation was brought to the ministry just a few hours before Justice Minister Pavel Kresheninnikov told Luzhkov that registration had been granted.

Luzhkov, in turn, thanked Kresheninnikov for his ministry's "business-like approach" and explained that the registration had been possible because 59 regional branches of the movement, created after Luzhkov first launched "Otechestvo" in November, had duly provided the requested documentation, and the protocol of Saturday's founding congress was the only document still needed.

At "Otechestovo's founding congress, Luzhkov received vocal support from more than 1,100 delegates, when he set out his vision for Russia's future.

Observers present were struck by the organizational effort, the range of the delegates and the wide display of security measures during the congress, held in the prestigious Column Hall in downtown Moscow. In those respects, many thought the gathering reminiscent of congresses held in the past by the Communist party.

Luzhkov called for a revival of the defense industry and the country's nuclear forces. He told delegates that Russia needs "a modern army and a reliable nuclear deterrence system," so as to restore its role as a leading world power. This need, he said, was illustrated by the U.S.-led attacks on Iraq, that Russia loudly opposed, but was not able to stop or influence.

Luzhkov said he wanted to create a state system "based on social democracy, strong state power and a combination of market-economy methods and social policies," drawing support from both right and left of the political spectrum.

According to the daily "Vremya-MN," Luzhkov's "declared centrist line" helped him find words for his speech, that "should appeal to many... and will probably becoming a slogan textbook for his supporters."

However, another daily, "Segodnya," said that Luzhkov's words made clear that "Otechestvo's future electoral campaigns "will be based on strong criticism of radical-liberal reform and the results of the activities of governments led first by (former prime minister Viktor) Chernomyrdin and (former prime minister Sergei) Kiriyenko."

In his speech Luzhkov, without naming names, lambasted reforms carried out in Russia during the last seven years. Russia, he said, "for the second time in this century," has been overtaken by doctrines that are "alien to its culture."

"If the situation in the country remains as it was," Luzhkov added, "we will all be up against some serious trouble."

According to Luzhkov, the implementation of reform, that has enriched just a few, leaving the majority of Russians struggling to make ends meet, has been a dangerous "experiment."

He said that what he called "vulgar monetarism can be implemented, but for this one should choose a country and a people one does not feel sorry for."

Luzhkov concluded his analysis telling delegates that "now, dear sirs, the experiment is over."

These words were greeted with warm applause from the audience, formed by many industrialists of the early perestroika period, as well as by regional bosses and politicians previously supporting President Boris Yeltsin.

Luzkhov is seen as one of the leading contenders to replace Yeltsin in an election set for the year 2000. Most analysts agree that "Otechestvo" will likely be the launching pad for Luzhkov's presidential campaign.

Luzhkov called for "experienced managers" of the Soviet-era to be reinstated at leading places and for property that had been privatized illegally to be returned to the state.

Luzhkov's message is one of patriotism and national unity, both of which were wounded by the many political and economic crises of the last years, and in particular by the fallout of the August financial collapse. However, Luzhkov's critics argue that it was the very reforms that he now condemns that helped Moscow's growth in previous years, when taxes on emerging businesses were largely collected in Moscow, to the benefit of the local budget.

Luzhkov is popular in the capital, and enjoys consistently strong ratings in opinion polls. However, many have put in doubt support for the Moscow mayor in Russia's regions and Luzhkov in the past year has been cultivating a network of supporters among regional leaders.

The weekend founding congress of "Otechestvo" was crowded with regional bosses. Some, including Nizhny Novgorod governor Ivan Sklyarov and his Novosibirsk colleague Vitaly Mukha were sitting in the presidium. Others said in the corridors that Luzhkov has an "excellent chance" to become Russia's next president, adding that they would support "Otechestvo" back home.

However, some were more cautious. "Vremya MN" quoted an unnamed regional governor, saying that he would want to wait for future developments, and to find out whether Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov supports "Otechestvo," too.

Primakov has not made a public statement on Luzhkov's movement so far. For his part, President Yeltsin did not send any message to the congress. Kremlin aide Oleg Sysuev, a member of Kiriyenko's former government, wished the new movement well, but distanced himself from Luzhkov's criticism of reforms.

Luzhkov replied, saying that Sysuev's words only show that the presidential administration does not understand the real situation in the country.