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Russia: Political Scene Buzzing With Rumors

Russian politics has recently been focused on several rumors. One suggested a possible dismissal of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin through a military putsch. Another suggested a Western-orchestrated conspiracy. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the role of rumor in Russian politics.

Moscow, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- While news from the Chechen front seems to slowly ease into occasional and rather routine official information bulletins, Russian political life since last week has buzzed with rumors. Media reports quoting unnamed sources spoke of the possible firing of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Another raised the threat of a military coup d'etat. Another spoke of an allegedly Western-orchestrated conspiracy to bring back to power former prime minister and present Kremlin opponent Yevgeny Primakov.

Rumors about senior generals' pressures on a recalcitrant Kremlin to continue the war in Chechnya filled the media. They culminated in a newspaper report last Saturday (Nov. 6), which quoted unnamed Kremlin sources as saying President Boris Yeltsin had given Putin the choice of either resigning or ending the war and firing a top military official. The same day, another newspaper claimed that two Kremlin opponents -- Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov -- were conspiring with the West to oust Putin.

Today, the deputy head of the President's office, Igor Shabdurasulov, denied the rumors of Putin's coming dismissal. The Interfax news agency quotes Shabdurasulov as saying that the rumors were the result of conflicts among various media and their owners who, he said, are exploiting political issues for their own purposes and "intrigues." Such rumors are usually interpreted by observers as attacks in an information war being waged between the Kremlin and its main political opponents, Luzhkov and Primakov.

RFE/RL spoke about the rumors with two Moscow analysts this week. Both acknowledged that the rumors are difficult to decipher and therefore would not speculate on the chances of Putin being dismissed. But they agreed the recent overheating of the Russian rumor mill may reflect waning public support for the Putin government.

Boris Kagarlitsky of the sociology institute inside the Russian Academy of Sciences says the Russian rumor mill is usually activated by lack of information and marked by a lack of transparency. He says that in Russian politics and their coverage by the media, non-existent or unknown facts are replaced by gossip. Kagarlitsky says: "Russian politics lives on these rumors." He says that in this respect Russian society is no more open than it was in Soviet times.

Kagarlitsky spoke of the mind-bending logic the Russian rumor-mill forces analysts to follow in order to try to make sense of insider politics. He says: "One rumor is based on another rumor, which is based on another rumor and so on." As a recent example, Kagarlitsky referred to a recently circulated rumor concerning business and media oligarch Boris Berezovsky -- often called a Kremlin insider -- and Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko. The two were said to be scared of Putin's increasing authority and seeking to get rid of him.

According to Kagarlitsky, the first question about these rumors is "whether they are true or not. If they're not true," he adds, "another question suggests itself -- are these rumors working for or against Putin?" He says they could work against Putin by showing his influence is receding against that of Berezovsky.

But then, Kagarlitsky says, "rumors of a rift between Putin and a much-hated figure [Berezovsky] might also play in the Prime Minister's favor by distancing him in the eyes of Russians from the unpopular Kremlin. So maybe," he speculates, "these rumors were actually initiated by people in the Kremlin to give Putin more support." But he concludes: "At the end of all this reasoning, we still have not learned anything, except that it was all absurd and in vain."

Kagarlitsky adds, however, that the rumors do reflect growing difficulties for Putin, a man whose soaring popularity -- if the polls can be trusted -- is based on his determination to win Russia's second war in Chechnya. If Putin succeeds, it would be Russia's first victorious military campaign after losing Afghanistan, the Cold War, and the first war in Chechnya (1994 to 1996). But, notes Kagarlitsky, an all-out victory in Chechnya seems less and less probable -- a fact, he says, that Russian public opinion will soon also notice.

According to other analysts, because of the uncertainty of the outcome in Chechnya, Putin is now opening another front -- this one economic -- on government-controlled television. Commentators on state-controlled TV are playing up remarks by some Western analysts indicating that Russia's current economic indicators are better than expected. And on Sunday (Nov. 7) the current-affairs program "Zerkalo," aired on state-owned television, interpreted the results of several recent public-opinion polls as showing that Russians were more satisfied with their financial situation under Putin than under Primakov. Primakov headed the government just after the ruble crash in August 1998.

Andrey Piontkovsky, director of Moscow's independent Center for Strategic Studies, told our correspondent that evaluating the probability of Putin being dismissed by Yeltsin is simply a guessing game. But he also notes that the recent rumor frenzy and attacks on Kremlin opponents may represent an offensive by the government against simmering criticism of the war in Chechnya.

Piontkovsky says "The Kremlin will soon have to confront a new problem -- changing public opinion toward the war in Chechnya." He says that "with the military campaign likely to stall before Winter and with the shock provoked by the [alleged Chechen-based terrorists'] bombings [in Moscow and elsewhere] wearing off, the public will begin to ask questions about the aim and cost of the war."

Piontkovsky believes some Russian political groups now foresee these changes and are beginning to criticize the war, -- in his words -- "very quietly, very timidly." He was referring to recent statements by Luzhkov and Primakov. While in Germany last week, for example, Primakov said the military operation in Chechnya was necessary to fight terrorism, but warned against it becoming a full-blown war.

Piontkovsky also says that, sensing this turn of mood, the Kremlin is trying to kill off its political opponents' initiative by discrediting them. He puts it this way: "Actually, it is the same technique used [by Stalin] in 1937 [to get rid of political opponents]. The idea is to play the patriotic chord by accusing Luzhkov and Primakov of being enemies of the people working against Russia in a Western-organized conspiracy." That way, Piontkovsky concludes, timid interrogations about the war in Chechnya become an act of treason against the state.