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Russia: Primakov Viewed As Powerful Kingmaker

Moscow, 1 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov may or may not see himself as a presidential candidate, but at the very least he seems to view himself as the kingmaker of Russian politics.

Since his appointment last September, Primakov has carefully avoided showing any vocal enthusiasm for the idea of becoming a presidential candidate. However, shortly after his appointment, Primakov, a former diplomat and spymaster, started promoting officials who previously served in security organs to sensitive media and government jobs.

One is Grigory Rapota, a career spy and former deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council, who last November was named head of Russia's state-owned arms exporter, "Rosvooruzheniye." He replaced Yevgeny Ananyev, considered close to former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Rapota has worked closely with Primakov in the past. He was the deputy head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Previous to his 1996 appointment as foreign affairs minister, Primakov headed that agency.

According to Russian media reports, control over the lucrative "Rosvooruzheniye" has been the subject of bitter rivalry among senior politicians.

In a rare interview with the daily "Kommersant" this week, Rapota said that "Rosvooruzheniye" does not expect to earn more than $2 billion in arms sales abroad this year, because of increased competition in the world arms markets and Russia's economic crisis.

The figure, he said, is the same as that in 1998. Before the August financial meltdown, exports of Russian arms had been estimated to earn some $3.5 billion in 1999.

Although reduced, these projections help explain the reported fierce competition for control over the company, which in the past was reported to be an important source of financing during electoral campaigns.

The English-daily "Moscow Times" in November quoted analyst Konstantin Makiyenko, of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, as saying that Rapota's appointment was a "victory for Primakov, who probably has plans for the presidency."

Unsuccessful moves last week to appoint a retiring counter intelligence general to a senior position at the state-owned VGTRK media holding also drew attention.

The officer, General Yury Kobaladze, is the former SVR public relations head, where he served under Primakov. His appointment had initially appeared to be certain. But in a last-minute twist on Monday he was named first deputy director of the Itar-Tass news agency. He filled the post left vacant after Leonid Nevzlin, close to the Rosprom-Yukos industrial group, quit in the fallout of the August financial meltdown.

Before any decision could be formalized, Kobaladze himself said VGTRK chairman Mikhail Shvydkoi had offered him the job. However, Shvydkoi's deputy, Mikhail Lesin had squarely ruled out the possibility. Lesin is one of the founders of "Video International." The company has the monopoly on advertising at VGTRK, which is its main source of revenue.

VGTRK includes the second nationwide channel of Russia's television, RTR, the channel Kultura, Radio Russia, the RIA news agency, a network of radio and television stations across Russia, as well as the national transmission system.

Despite present dire financial situations, VGTRK and other media holdings are expected to play a key role in influencing the outcome of coming presidential and parliamentary elections.

Even if Kobaladze did not reach his goal, other former security service officials already working at VGTRK now reportedly hold top jobs. In December, Lev Koshlyakov, who until 1994 worked for the counter intelligence service, was named to head the news program "Vesti." He coordinates the network of correspondents working for the program and for the RIA news agency.

Judging from a number of recent government appointments, other officials who -- unlike Rapota and Kobaladze -- never worked with Primakov but made their careers in security organs have been promoted to top positions in government agencies that are considered potential key sources of campaign financing.

According to Russian media reports, former first deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Yegorov was appointed in October as first deputy head of the Customs Committee. The same month, Aleksei Shestaperov, formerly deputy head of Russia's Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI,) was called to head the state-owned company "Rostek," which reportedly is linked to the Customs Committee since it deals with customs payments.

In November, a defense ministry officer, General Vladimir Kovalev, became deputy transport minister. The transport ministry, together with the power grid Unified Energy Systems (RAO ES) and the gas monopoly Gazprom, is one of Russia's so-called natural monopolies. Most analysts in Moscow expect them to be a source of patronage and financing ahead of parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections, scheduled for June 2000.

This trend indicates that, even if he will not be a presidential candidate, Primakov, with his extensive political and economic influence, will be one of the most powerful kingmakers.

(Elmar Murtazaev of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)