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Russia: Kremlin Players Vie For Political Power

  • Floriana Fossato

Following recent battles over the formation of a new Russian government, many politicians and observers in Moscow are now speculating how the struggle will affect the presidential race in mid-2000. Our analysis, by Moscow correspondent Floriana Fossato, is divided into three parts. Part One looks at the leading players in the recent struggle. Part Two looks at the ongoing search within the Kremlin for president Boris Yeltsin's political heir. Part Three examines early positioning in the race to succeed him.

Moscow, 8 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- According to Russian media, a number of conflicting Kremlin clans played a part in last month's abrupt firing of Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister.

The sacking followed lengthy speculation the move was imminent. There were regular reports of president Boris Yeltsin's growing dislike for Primakov, who in preceding months had failed several loyalty tests and was seen to be moving increasingly toward Yeltsin's communist foes.

The head of energy monopoly UES, Anatoly Chubais, known as a master of Kremlin intrigue, hinted in interviews he had a role in advising Yeltsin on firing Primakov. Chubais and other former pro-reform officials may have been hoping to induce Yeltsin to start some kind of liberal revenge after Primakov's exit from the scene. And indeed, when Yeltsin fired Primakov, he claimed he was acting because the government was making little progress on economic reforms.

However, Chubais and his associates, known earlier as "young reformers," lacked a candidate for prime minister acceptable to the Kremlin and to other groups trying to influence Yeltsin. Chubais's group ended up backing Yeltsin-loyalist Sergei Stepashin, a former interior minister with little training in economics, but someone who Chubais portrays as representing younger, more liberal-minded officials.

Another group suspected of having a role in Primakov's dismissal and in advancing its own agenda is "The Family," so called because the group reportedly includes Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and controversial businessmen Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich.

Berezovsky's and Abramovich's roles remain unclear. Abramovich had previously been known as Berezovsky's business partner, but depending on which media commentator one listens to, Abramovich has either pushed Berezovsky out of the picture or is acting faithfully on his behalf.

The Family's candidate for the post of prime minister appeared to have been an obscure government minister, Nikolai Aksenenko. Indeed, it was not clear until the last minute whether the Kremlin had presented Stepashin or Aksenenko to the State Duma to replace Primakov.

After 10 days of in-fighting, Aksenenko was made Stepashin's first deputy in charge of industrial policy. However, Stepashin's lack of real authority within the Kremlin was exposed when he failed to win approval of his candidate to oversee financial and macroeconomic policies. A third group also probably played a role in Primakov's ousting. It's centered on the media conglomerate "Media Most" (owner of Russian NTV television) and is thought generally to oppose the interests of The Family.

The principal shareholder in Media Most, Vladimir Gusinsky, spoke recently with RFE/RL's Russian Service. He said in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections he personally backs pro-market "Yabloko" leader Grigory Yavlinsky, but he says he also supports Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

"If we talk about my personal sympathies, I do not hide that I like in particular Grigory Yavlinsky. I believe the future of the country is with Yavlinsky ... I would even say that personally I will do everything I can to help "Yabloko," not only Yavlinsky, so that they can win in the next elections. This does not mean that NTV television will give anybody some kind of priority ... This said, to a considerable extent, I sympathize with Luzhkov's positions. I like very much the fight against fascists that he has developed in Moscow. I like his uncompromising position against the communists."

Since Yavlinsky and Luzhkov were unlikely choices for prime minister, Gusinsky's group didn't have a preferred candidate for the post after Primakov's sacking. However, it's believed the group sought to block the influence of The Family in filling cabinet posts.

Observers say Media Most opposes The Family because of failed expectations. The group is believed to have played a role in helping Yeltsin to defeat a Communist-led impeachment effort in the State Duma. A television commentator told our correspondent that "Media Most people have a reason to be unhappy," adding "they helped the Kremlin block impeachment ... but then things did not continue as they had wished."

Analysts say Media Most may have been angered because former Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Bulgak, who is seen as close to the holding and who oversaw monopolies, including telecommunications, in earlier governments, was not included in the new cabinet.

Media Most outlets -- particularly NTV and Radio Echo of Moscow -- have done their best to spread an intense wave of speculation concerning the plans of The Family and the connections of Abramovich.

The group's media allege The Family aims to obtain full control of budgetary financial flows as well as over the cash flows of key monopolies, including the railways ministry, Gazprom, Unified Energy Systems and the oil pipeline company Transneft.

The allegations have been denied and the level of speculation is disturbingly reminiscent of past information wars fought by media-controlling oligarchs. However, some of the concerns raised in the squabble seem real.

The daily "Vremya-MN," financed by structures controlled by Russia's Central Bank, echoed the opinion of most Russian political analysts when it wrote that "never before has the curtain behind which the political game is conducted been as transparent as now." It says political interests are "indecently naked."

And NTV anchorman Yevgeny Kiselev spoke for many when he said recently that "people seriously wonder whether Yeltsin controls his entourage or whether the contrary is true."

(First of three features looking at recent developments in Russian politics and at upcoming elections.)