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Russia: Kremlin Wins Battle, But Not Yet War

  • Sophie Lambroschini

With votes still being counted following yesterday's elections for the Russian State Duma, the real extent of any weakening of the Communist Party inside the body is still in doubt. The election's main result is the proof it offers of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's apparently solid popularity. His favored party -- Unity -- the bloc the Kremlin hastily assembled late this year, is in a close contest with the Communists for the most party list votes. Whatever the final outcome, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that the Kremlin has plenty to celebrate.

Moscow, 20 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With the strong showing for "Unity", the Kremlin has managed to both reduce potential anti-Kremlin opposition in the lower house and undermine the popularity of presidential hopeful Yevgeny Primakov. His bloc, Fatherland-All Russia, which was seen as a front-runner a month ago, won only some 10 percent of votes.

So for Russian authorities the Duma elections are proving to be an important political success ahead of presidential elections in June 2000. Prime Minister Putin is, for now, Yeltsin's designated heir. And widespread public backing of Putin's war in Chechnya has made the prime minister Russia's most popular politician. Now, Unity will probably be a key player in the new legislature.

Another party which openly supported Putin also achieved unexpectedly good results. The Union of Right Forces (SPS), led by former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, is expected to get nine percent. Only two days ago analysts doubted it would get over the five percent barrier for seats under the party list vote.

Last week SPS played up its support of Putin in several political advertisements. Putin also said on television that he agreed with parts of SPS's pro-free market economic reform program.

Most analysts agree that Unity is accountable to Putin for its success. Indeed, apart from the popular prime minister's backing, Unity didn't seem to have much appeal for voters. Unity was launched only in September as a last resort only after several other attempts at forming a pro-Kremlin party of power failed. Unity's figureheads, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, wrestling champion Alexander Karelin and retired anti-mob investigator Alexander Gurov, even boasted that they didn't have time to work out a program.

Unity's spokesman said yesterday that the bloc's success showed that Russians chose a "new generation of young and energetic politicians" capable of changing things.

Political scientist Andrey Piontkowsky tells RFE/RL that Unity's success is quite understandable because the bloc, and Putin, combine two key elements -- the support of the authorities and the kind of tough speaking leader of which many Russians approve.

"We say Putin and mean Unity. We say Unity and mean Putin. And Putin's famous phrase that he will 'flush [terrorists] down the toilet' is plagiarism of [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky. All the previous projects of parties of power fell through completely. It's enough to mention [Viktor] Chernomyrdin [leader of the bloc supported by the Kremlin in 1995]. But [Putin and Unity] combine Chernomyrdin's administrative resources and the [kind of] appeal of Zhirinovsky and [Alexander] Lebed that call upon the same layer of the population and the same structures of the collective subconscious. In this case the combination of what seemed incompatible can explain the incredible success."

Supported by several governors and regional structures, Unity probably gained from the avalanche of accusations brought by Kremlin-controlled media outlets against Fatherland-All Russia.

Also, Carnegie Fund analyst Nikolai Petrov explains that in the provinces, Unity benefits from the fact that it is n-o-t perceived as the party of power. This is true for example in Krasnodar, a classic communist dominated region where Unity was running well.

Local sociologist Natalya Tutsenko tells RFE/RL that local support for Putin stems less from his official position than from his actions in Chechnya. She says this was true in part because of Krasnodar's proximity to the North Caucasus and what is seen as the Chechen "threat".

As for the unexpectedly strong showing of the Union of Right Forces, former Moscow mayor Gavril Popov disagrees that it had most to do with its support for Putin. He told RFE/RL last night that the showing of the Union of Right Forces actually reflects an increasing support among Russians for private property and entrepreneurship.

Several politicians close to the government have already expressed the expectation that the new Duma will work more constructively with the executive. That may make it possible to pass laws previously blocked by the left opposition, which held 205 seats out of 450 in the outgoing Duma.

Anatoly Chubais, who backed the Union of Right Forces, says that it may be possible to create a non-communist majority in the Duma.

According to analysts, this alliance would unite Unity, the Union of Right Forces, Zhirinovsky's party and possibly several deputies from Fatherland-All Russia as well as some independents.

For now, the balance in the next Duma is still difficult to evaluate while the vote count is underway.

Also, many analysts expect that Fatherland-All Russia, which was running on a strict anti-Kremlin platform while promoting Yevgeny Primakov as its presidential candidate, will now crumble. United more by a conjectural alliance against the Kremlin than by a common ideology, the bloc's deputies are expected to divide into different factions.

Earlier, Primakov expressed his readiness to cooperate with the communists on certain issues.

Another factor of uncertainty is the political orientation of those who will win seats as independents. Their number is expected to be around 109 out of the total of 450 deputies.

Jean-Robert Raviot, a political scientist with the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris, says that up to one third of these independents could eventually align with the communists, boosting their representation. Therefore, Raviot says it is too soon to say whether or not the Kremlin can count on a docile majority.

Meanwhile, Grigory Yavlinky's Yabloko -- the only party to advance a peace-plan for Chechnya -- appears to be faring worse than expected and worse than in 1995. Yabloko's poor showing suggests that it is too early for a party to benefit from making an anti-war appeal. That may still change ahead of presidential elections, with much still riding on the fate of the military campaign in the breakaway republic.

Another question is whether a manageable Duma majority is really good news for the Kremlin. On the one hand, the possibility discussed by analysts ahead of the elections that the Duma might attempt to dump presidential candidate Putin as prime minister to try to break his political future is fading. On the other hand, the Communist's opposition in the Duma, and their attempts to paralyze projects proposed by the government, has always been the favored argument of Russian authorities to explain away the country's problems. The Kremlin may have boosted its influence but it may have lost its favorite scape-goat.