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Russia: Duma Elections Grow In Importance

Elections for the Russian State Duma are due in December. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Floriana Fossato reports that while it is overshadowed by next year's presidential elections, the parliamentary poll is growing in importance as a key battle ground over the country's political future.

Moscow, 1 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Until recently, most top Russian politicians have focused their attention on the June 2000 presidential elections. But with no presidential candidate having yet appeared whom President Boris Yeltsin supports, the Russian political situation remains unpredictable. As a result, politicians and their advisors now say that the parliamentary elections due in five months have acquired new importance.

This week, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin told a meeting of Federal Security Service (FSB) officials that the composition of the next parliament will greatly effect the outcome of the presidential elections in June. Stepashin said that "a great deal in the future...will depend on whom we elect to parliament."

The creation of new political movements that will participate in the parliamentary elections is now almost complete. Most of the political groups have held founding congresses in the past few months.

Many moderate Russian politicians repeatedly use phrases like "consolidation of forces" and "creation of a constructive opposition" in the new parliament. The moderates are seeking a more centrist-based State Duma, the lower house, to replace the present house dominated by communist and nationalist groups.

Leonid Raketsky is the governor of the oil-rich Tyumen region and one of the most influential representatives of the centrist movement Voice of Russia, which is led by Samara governor Konstantin Titov. In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Russian service, Raketsky gave his views of the various political groups vying for power in the December parliamentary elections:

"There are several movements looking very similar, like sister organizations: [Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov's] 'Fatherland', 'Our Home Is Russia', 'Voice of Russia' and 'All Russia'. I think all the leaders of these organizations should overcome their own ambitions, stop promoting themselves and understand clearly that we should create a 'golden' centrist group attractive to the electorate. [We should] not choose political leaders, but candidates for the Duma.... Only after that should leaders be chosen, to compete among themselves before next year's presidential vote."

One of the leaders of the 'Our Home is Russia' group, Saratov governor Dmitry Ayatskov, foresees the possible creation of a coalition of centrist and center-right movements. Ayatskov recently told the Interfax news agency that in his opinion only three or four political blocs are likely to attain the five percent of the vote necessary for parliamentary representation under the electoral law.

Ayatskov does not include Luzhkov's Fatherland group among the movements his party is consulting with on the formation of a united centrist bloc. He said that consultations with several groups are under way, but added that "it is too early to talk about the results." One of the leaders of the center-right 'Right Cause' bloc, economist Yegor Gaidar, made a similar statement last week.

In recent days, some Russian media have been speculating about the possibility that the Kremlin is trying to create its own coalition. They say it would be a kind of new "party of power" that would be called "Rossia" and could be led by Stepashin. According to media reports, most moderate blocs would be invited to take part in the new party, with the exception of Luzhkov's Fatherland movement, which the Kremlin is said to actively oppose.

Last week, Yeltsin told Stepashin to "consider the place and the role of the government in the next parliamentary election." Stepashin answered that the government "cannot be cut off" from the preparation of the parliamentary campaign. Two days ago, he told FSB officials that Russia's security forces must not allow the Duma elections to be dominated by criminals seeking to influence Russian politics.

The daily "Vremya MN" wrote recently that "the recipe for success [in creating a new party] is well-known: [the backing of regional] governors, industrial captains and military men, some small parties and a few intellectuals, plus a lot of money and a huge amount of [television] broadcasting time." But, the paper added, Russian politicians have a poor record of agreeing on anything. Also, it said, Russia's bankrupt central government has little to offer to regional bosses.

More important, "Vremya MN" noted, in order to create a real "party of power," something else is necessary: "an idea that could unite all [moderate forces]." The paper said that three years ago the unifying idea was the perceived danger of a communist come-back. But, now it concludes, "this will not work, and for the moment there are no other ideas" that could unite all the possible members of a moderate alliance.

Some politicians say that the fragmentation of Russia's centrist and center-right political spectrum could benefit the communists and their allies in the present Duma. But others doubt that. According to Ayatskov of 'Our Home is Russia', substantial differences in view are already noticeable among leaders of pro-communist groups. In fact, Ayatskov -- and some other politicians -- believe, in Ayatskov's words, that the communist party "is rapidly losing its political weight, especially after the failed impeachment attempt against Yeltsin."