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Russia: Premier Runs For President On War Platform

As the Russian military claimed victory on Friday over Chechnya's second-largest city, Gudermes, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin confirmed that he will run for president next year. RFE/RL correspondent in Moscow Sophie Lambroschini takes a look at the roots of the premier's popularity.

Moscow, 15 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says his name will be on the ballot when Russia votes for a president next June.

When President Boris Yeltsin chose Putin as premier in August, he made it clear that he wanted the former intelligence chief to be his successor. Since then, Putin's ratings have skyrocketed. If the latest poll can be believed, 36 percent of Russians would vote for Putin now. His closest rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, is credited with 16 percent.

According to most experts, Putin's high popularity is a result of the perceived success of the war in Chechnya. Tellingly, in his announcement on Friday, Putin also associated his political future and the Chechen campaign. He first announced that Russian troops had conquered Gudermes, the second-largest city in Chechnya. Only after sharing this success story did he confirm his intention to run for president.

On Wednesday, Russia's most prominent political image-makers held a roundtable at the Moscow branch of the Carnegie Fund. All agreed that Putin's popularity was tied to his success as prime minister, as his experience in politics is relatively recent.

Igor Bunin, the director of the Center for Political Technologies, said Russians see Putin as strong-willed, purposeful and energetic, a man who can impose order. He notes that Putin is one of the rare politicians to almost completely lack negative traits in the eyes of public opinion. Yet Putin's best qualities might also turn out to be his main weak point, Bunin said, explaining that Putin embodies the idea of prime minister so much in voters' minds that he lacks a human image.

Other experts pointed out that Putin is vulnerable despite his high ratings. Keeping his post as prime minister and maintaining a perception of success in Chechnya are key to his political future.

Evgeny Suchkov, an expert with the Electoral Technologies Fund and author of a book on image-making, says Putin has two strong points. In Suchkov's words: "He has the image of a strong leader. He also [incarnates] the party of power. His popularity [depends on] the multiplication of these two factors. If one of them disappears, the whole construction can collapse."

One Russian newspaper recently dubbed Putin "Russia's prime minister for Chechen affairs," illustrating how closely his image is associated with the war. As if to emphasize that there is more to the prime minister than Chechnya, Russian state-owned television (RTR) last week aired a long, admiring analysis of Putin's economic policies.

The confirmation that Putin is seeking the presidency comes at a time when the Russian rumor mill has been hinting that he is no longer the Kremlin's favorite. Some newspapers have been speculating that the prime minister will be dismissed because President Yeltsin may resent that his head of government is well-liked while his own popularity is at rock-bottom.