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Russia: New Political Bloc Seeks Leader

By Sophie Lambroschini and Floriana Fossato

The political union announced yesterday between Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's "Fatherland" group and the "All Russia" bloc of regional governors will be a formidable force in Russia. But the key issue of who's in charge remains open. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini and Floriana Fossato report from Moscow that the group will improve its chances of success significantly if it can get former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov to sign on.

Moscow, 5 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's "Fatherland" group and the "All Russia" bloc of regional governors yesterday agreed to join forces to contest December's parliamentary elections.

According to the leader of the All Russia group, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, the "Fatherland-All Russia" bloc will take Russia to a new level of democratic development. He says the group aims to attract centrist voters and could allow a future Russian president to achieve a new political majority. Shaimiev:

"By taking the decision to merge 'Fatherland' and 'All Russia,' the leaders have assumed a huge responsibility of state dimension. The stakes are high. We must be able to lead Russia to a new level of development, to a new level of democratic development. Since we occupy the political niche belonging to the center, we will achieve a constructive majority in the Duma. This will allow the Russian president to form a new government on the basis of the new parliamentary majority."

Political analysts say the bloc could win as many as a third of the seats in the State Duma, the lower house now dominated by the Communist party. It's unclear as yet where the group stands on many important political issues, but Luzhkov has been highly critical of the Kremlin and the way economic reforms have been carried out in the country.

One important question remains open: Who will lead the union?

An official with Fatherland-All Russia, Andrei Isaev, tells RFE/RL in Moscow that the group is actively courting former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov. He says Luzhkov -- widely thought to be interested in running for president next year -- would take the number two position. Isaev says talks with Primakov are continuing and that another meeting is scheduled in a few days.

Primakov, for his part, has praised the union for linking the political center in Russia, but he has stopped short of committing to lead the group.

Oksana Orecheva is a regional policy analyst with the Moscow East-West Institute. She says an official "yes" from Primakov would considerably increase the bloc's chances:

"The union with Primakov would be a very strong move because the man who would join is considered above the governors."

The All Russia group brings together the country's most powerful governors and regional bosses. Many come from regions that have concluded profitable power-sharing agreements with the federal government.

Analysts say one consequence of the new political bloc may be that governors from less influential regions that are more dependent on the center could join forces behind the Communist party. A new pro-Communist bloc, "For Victory," including 16 regional leaders, was reportedly created this week.

Orecheva says that -- whatever the outcome of the leadership issue -- "Fatherland-All Russia" will increase Luzhkov's popularity and bolster his chances of capturing the presidency next year, if he chooses to run: "The merger with regional leaders allows Luzhkov to prove he does not represent [just] the center -- Moscow -- but [also] that he heads a federation entity. This increases his popularity in the regions."

It's unclear yet how the Kremlin will react to the move. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has been openly feuding with Luzhkov and his allies in recent months.

Shaimiyev met with Yeltsin yesterday just ahead of the bloc's announcement. Shaimiyev said Yeltsin reacted "normally" to the news and wanted to know more.

The creation of the new bloc may have had something to do with the Kremlin's decision on Tuesday to fire deputy chief-of-staff Sergei Zverev. Zverev is a long-time official at the Most media group. Most supports Luzhkov and is also locked in a bitter fight with the Kremlin. Zverev had been at the Kremlin just four months.

Speaking to reporters after being dismissed, Zverev lashed out at the Kremlin. He said the new bloc is, in his words, "destined to succeed" and that "no scenario could be ruled out" if the Kremlin decides to fight it.