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Russia: Former PMs Play Hot Political Roles

By Sophie Lambroschini and Floriana Fossato

Four months before parliamentary elections, Russian political parties and movements are fighting for the favor of two former prime ministers -- Yevgenii Primakov and Sergei Stepashin. The reason for the courting is that it is believed both Primakov and, to a lesser extent, Stepashin, can boost the popularity of whichever party they choose to join. RFE/RL correspondents Sophie Lambroschini and Floriana Fossato file this report from Moscow.

Moscow, 13 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- While he was in office, Sergei Stepashin rarely had a busier schedule than he has had in the four days since his firing.

Since he left for his dacha on Monday, the former prime minister has met with three other former heads of government, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Sergei Kiriyenko, and Yevgenii Primakov. He has also spoken on the phone with over thirty regional leaders. Patriarch Aleksi has invited him to spend the day at his residence.

As of Friday morning, two more influential politicians interested in meeting with him -- Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev -- were still waiting their turn.

Well known after nearly three months as head of government and moderately popular, the freshly sacked Stepashin has become one of Russia's most wanted electoral commodities. The other is Primakov, who is actively courted by Moscow Mayor Luzhkov and by other leaders from the "Fatherland-All Russia" bloc.

The phenomenon of winning attractive candidates to help lead an electoral slate is not new. Ahead of 1995 parliamentary elections, the centrist "Our Home is Russia" coalition headed by the stolid Chernomyrdin set film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov in second place on its electoral list to attract votes. After the election, the artist promptly gave up his Duma seat. During recent months, Primakov has been wooed by most major movements from the left and the center of the political spectrum.

What are the reasons for what the Russian media has called the "ex-prime minister hunt?" The answer can be found in opinion polls.

According to the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (Vtsiom), the "Fatherland -- All Russia" bloc led by Luzhkov and Shaimiev would get 16 percent without Primakov and 28 percent with him. The higher figure would likely make it the single biggest bloc in the next Duma.

According to Andrei Ryabov, an expert for the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, Russian political parties put pragmatism before ideology and therefore leaders play a role of paramount importance.

"In Russia, political institutions in themselves are very weak and apparently for a long time they will still be colored by personalities."

Other analysts go even further and note that many people, as in Soviet times, still see their ballot mainly as an endorsement of decisions made behind the scenes by politicians.

According to the daily newspaper "Segodnya," political parties and electoral groups are counting on the fame that any politician gets by having been prime minister. The paper writes that "There is no other way of quickly becoming a first-rank politician famous in the whole country". The newspaper ironically suggests that all former prime ministers should form a new coalition called "Premiers of Russia". Indeed, apart from Luzhkov himself, "Fatherland-All Russia" doesn't include any political heavyweights that would inspire voters. "Nezevisimaya Gazeta" describes the 69-year-old Primakov as "political Viagra for Luzhkov."

The presence of Primakov or Stepashin could help consolidate rather motley coalitions such as "My Fatherland-All Russia," Samara governor Titov's "Voice of Russia," and the pro-reformist "Right Cause." The loose coalition around "Right Cause," including Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Kiriyenko and others, unites a group of small parties promoting reform. Nemtsov told RFE/RL this week that Stepashin would help them unite and boost their chances to get the five percent of the vote needed to be in the next Duma.

"[If] Stepashin comes, I think many governors, for example who were part of "Our Home Is Russia," many people with [reformist] views, people of moderate social-democratic orientation, could unite around this bloc. A strong center-right coalition is good not only for Stepashin, but for the whole country, because such a coalition with Stepashin at its head will receive a minimum of 15-17 percent [of votes]."

Nemtsov is so eager to have Stepashin join "Right Cause" that he brushes aside some possible contradictions between his views and Stepashin's political profile. Won't Stepashin's loyalty to Yeltsin be a problem? Nemtsov says no. He says, quoting, "That doesnt matter, well change him". What about Stepashin being a former pro-war minister and a KGB-man? Nemtsov replies that Stepashin has repented for his part in the Chechen war and that young KGB men "are completely different" from their elders.

So why are Primakov and Stepashin considered popular? Ryabov says they satisfy Russian society's longing for conservatism and fear of the changes that can be brought by communists or reformists.

Primakov was in charge after the August crisis. According to Ryabov, many people believe he's the man who can bring some gradual, slow, but positive change, without destroying the existing stability.

Another analyst says simply "Russians like him because hes boring."

Ryabov says that by avoiding harsh steps during his time in office, Stepashin also gained the image of a "conservative politician." Before he headed the cabinet, most Russians knew Stepashin as one of the Kremlin's hawks who sent Russian conscripts to die in Chechnya.

"Segodnya" guesses that Stepashin's popularity may come from his current aura of innocent victim.

According to Ryabov, Primakov and Stepashin are a safe bet for political parties because "they both seem to obey the main motivation behind the average Russian person's concerns". Ryabov says that when it comes to political ideas, average Russians will support "anything, provided things don't get worse."