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Russia: Candidates Maneuver Before Presidential Election In 2000

Moscow, 8 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Although Russia's presidential vote is about one year away, frontrunners are already jockeying for position. The early field features a few new faces and many familiar names.

The newest name is probably first deputy prime minister Nikolai Aksenenko. Aksenenko, with reported backing by the Kremlin, came out of nowhere in May and was briefly considered as the leading candidate to succeed ousted prime minister Yevgeny Primakov.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, the head of the think-tank Politika, says the inner circle of President Boris Yeltsin, widely referred to as "The Family," is now strongly backing Aksenenko. He told Reuters that Aksenenko is the favorite son of The Family.

Another new face is current Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who emerged after Primakov's dismissal and who is now busy trying to put the country on sturdier economic footing.

Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, says these two men may indeed become frontrunners down the road, but he says it is too early yet to talk seriously about their chances.

"I would not rule out their possibilities. But my feeling is that in order to become members of the pool of top politicians, both [Stepashin and Aksenenko] will have to overcome serious resistance concerning the survival of the government. If a frail form of social and political stability is preserved until Fall, then the chances of these politicians will grow. For the moment, it seems too early to talk about their prospects."

Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov led presidential opinion polls earlier this year, and Luzhkov is probably still considered the leading candidate at present.

However, analysts say Luzhkov faces strong opposition by The Family, and that with Primakov out of the way, Yeltsin will probably be gunning for Luzhkov next.

The Kremlin is unlikely to forget Luzhkov acted against Yeltsin's wishes several times in recent months. Luzhkov, for one, did not support the president in the Federation Council when Yeltsin was fighting to dismiss Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov. A number of legislators close to Luzhkov also voted against Yeltsin in the May 15 failed impeachment vote.

To secure Luzhkov's power base, the Moscow City Duma, extremely loyal to the mayor, passed a resolution to reschedule the Moscow mayoral election to coincide with parliamentary elections in December. The vote was originally set for 2000 together with the presidential vote.

The move would allow Luzhkov to run in the presidential race and also maintain the powerful post of Mayor in case he loses.

The decision to move the vote was widely criticized by liberals and nationalists alike. Nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another presidential contender, said the post of Moscow mayor should be abolished altogether. Another name often cited as a candidate is former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Chernomyrdin reportedly won the backing of influential business tycoon Boris Berezovsky after last year's financial crisis, but Chernomyrdin's name was later withdrawn after it was rejected by the State Duma.

Chernomyrdin is now working actively on a solution to the Kosovo crisis as Yeltsin's special representative. This action is seen as strengthening his international profile, but analysts say the role is unlikely to increase Chernomyrdin's very low domestic ratings in Russia.

Observers also say Berezovsky could throw his support behind another leading politician, retired general Aleksandr Lebed, as a "protest vote." Berezovsky supported Lebed last year when he ran for governor of the Siberian Krasnoyarsk region.

Another widely discussed name is "Yabloko" leader Grigory Yavlinsky. In Nizhny Novgorod recently, Yavlinsky said he expects to win the presidential election. He said he believes that if he finished third in the race, he would "form a government".

Talking about the parliamentary elections, Yavlinsky expressed confidence the next Duma would include at least 100 Yabloko deputies.

According to Carnegie's Ryabov, in this confused situation, the December parliamentary election is acquiring a more important role.

"The line-up for the presidential election will depend to a large extent on the outcome of the Duma elections. [Then] it will become clear which candidate will have the most favorable starting position in the presidential race. This is why the preparation for the parliamentary race is already under way."

Besides the leading candidates, there are a number of wild cards observers see as under consideration in the Kremlin.

One possible option could be pushing for a popular referendum to unite Russia with Belarus in a union that would create a new political entity. The new state would obviously need a new -- or an old -- president, and this could be Yeltsin.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied this and other wild scenarios, including the possibility of declaring a state of emergency and scrapping elections altogether.

(Third of three features looking at recent developments in Russian politics and upcoming elections this year and next.)