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Russia: Some Presidential Candidates Make Intentions Clear

Moscow, 22 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Well in advance of the campaign season, Russia's two main parties over the weekend outlined their plans for the next presidential elections. Russia's next parliamentary election is not due until 1999, and the presidential poll is scheduled for the year 2000, but the country's main political forces are already preparing their startegies.

Both the Communist Party and the pro-government bloc "Our Home is Russia" held congresses in Moscow. Each re-elected its respective leader: Gennady Zyuganov and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Reports say that public displays of unity abounded at the congresses, despite deep divisions troubling each organization.

The Communist Party still has the largest grassroots network in Russia and, following the last parliamentary poll in 1995, maintains the biggest faction in the State Duma. Our Home is Russia won only ten percent of the votes in the 1995 election, but has the second-largest faction in the Duma.

Soviet-style pomp and nostalgia for lost power characterized the Communists' congress. During its preparation, hardliners put pressure on Zyuganov, who before last year's presidential poll was portraying himself as a moderate. And, on Saturday, delegates complained that the Communist parliamentary faction is too supportive of the government and not "close enough to the masses."

In response to the criticism, Zyuganov blasted the government recently appointed by Yeltsin, and called for a more radical struggle against Yeltsin's policies. Zyuganov, often quoting in his speech Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin and dictator Josef Stalin, said the reshuffled government will "undoubtedly carry out policies murderous for Russia." He said the party will also start soon gathering signatures calling for Yeltsin's resignation.

In a speech to Our Home is Russia delegates, Chernomyrdin said that such actions would be uncostitutional, and told the assembly that "we will not allow this." Chernomyrdin said that Our Home is Russia should field its own candidate to the next presidential poll. The organization, founded before the last parliamentary election to oppose the Communist Party, unites mainly central and regional officials and admittedly lacks a strong popular base.

Chernomyrdin stopped short of proposing himself as a presidential candidate. Agencies quoted him as saying that "now, it is too early" to decide the name of the candidate. However, he added, that the organization "should be ready for such a step."

Sergei Belyayev, who chairs the organization's faction in the State Duma, said Our Home is Russia should be able to formulate policies more independent from the government. However, he told reporters that Chernomirdin would undoubtedly, at some stage, be proposed as presidential candidate "from the base."

Chernomyrdin's critics say he lacks Yeltsin's charisma as president, despite the backing of influential industrial lobbies. But his allies say he could have a chance of be elected if the state machinary would unite behind him.

Observers say that this seems unlikely, at least at the moment.

Yeltsin's re-election last year was masterminded by the former head of the presidential administration, Anatoly Chubais, who in the last Cabinet reshuffle was appointed a First Deputy Prime Minister. Chernomyrdin kept his job in the reshuffle, despite Yeltsin's strong criticism of his government's budget and failure to pay wages and pensions.

However, Yeltsin effectively formed a new government, and gave key positions in the Cabinet to a number of politicians viewed as pro-reform, led by Chubais and by the other First Deputy Prime Minister, Boris Nemtsov.

Nemtsov is also considered a likely candidate for the next presidential election, but denies any such intention. Nemtsov's name goes along with Chernomyrdin, Zyuganov, former Security Council Secretary and retired General Aleksandr Lebed and the populist Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

Lebed last week officially registered his "Russian Popular Republican Party." Until recently he was rated Russia's most popular politician. But more recently Nemtsov has topped surveys as the country's most trusted politician.

Nemtsov, Chubais and other ministers briefly attended the Our Home is Russia congress. Russian television cameras showed them sitting in the VIPs section, together with Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana. However, it is unclear whether they heard -- and agreed -- to one of the last passages in Chernomyrdin's speech. He appealed for greater cooperation between democratic and reformist forces ahead of the next presidential and parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, Luzhkov in visiting the United States, mostly to promote investment in Moscow. But Luzhkov also met President Bill Clinton at the White House over the weekend. The trip is expected to increase Luzhkov's international standing abroad. In recent populist statements interpreted by observers as Luzhkov's attempt to improve his rating at home, the Moscow Mayor said that the Ukrainian port-city of Sevastopol, home to the disputed Black Sea fleet, should be considered a Russian city. He was also a vocal supporter of Russia's controversial Union agreement with Belarus.

It is clearly too early to predict the possible outcome of Russia's next presidential election. However, little doubt remains after last week of the intention of at least three of the five possible candidates. The remaining two, Nemtsov and Luzhkov, do not have -- for the moment -- a party podium to propell their names.