Russian troika?

By Steve Farrell and Diane Alden
web posted November 8, 1999

Though not as compelling to Americans as the approaching election to choose between Republicans, Democrats and third party candidates running for the presidency, upcoming Russian balloting holds some fascinating possibilities.

Until recently the two primary contestants in the Russian electoral horse race were Yevgevny Primakov and popular Moscow Mayor, Vladimir Luzhkov. The two joined forces bending over backwards to compliment and support each other. They seemed to be the dynamic duo, jockeying for a possible president, prime minister year 2000 administration. However, as fate and Boris Yeltsin would have it, the summertime firing of Primakov's replacement, Prime Minister S. Stepashin, and the appointment of Vladimir Putin, threw a monkey wrench into electoral game plans.

As in the case of onetime Prime Minister Primakov, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB bureaucrat was chosen by Boris Yeltsin as Stepashin's successor. Putin, a seemingly lackluster, nondescript Russian flunky, and to all appearances someone Yeltsin could control, has proved to be a reliable and popular leader.

In his brief tenure in office, Putin has managed to turn back two incursions into Dagestan by Chechan rebels and at the very least act in charge of events in the Caucasus region on Russia's turbulent southern border.

Additionally, he is making noises like a domestic policy leader. In the past few weeks he has ordered the government to come up with a strategy for allowing Russians to buy their own apartments and thus, has begun a long awaited strategy for implementing a popular variety of private property ownership. According to RIA news agency Putin is supposed to have said: "Lack of housing generates social unrest…the only thing to be worked out is the concept of mortgages." Sources say he has asked for a private property housing program within a month. One of the reasons the concept of private property hasn't caught on in the past is that mortgage lenders were not protected from default. Evictions are notoriously difficult and complicated. New legislation has changed that and Putin made one small step towards something the average Russian understands - the need for housing.

All of these efforts in pursuing some sort of direction have made him appear like a leader. However, Putin has also been linked to the "St. Petersburg Coterie" whose leader is the very unpopular Russian ogre, Anatoly Chubais. Economic czar Chubais has been associated in the minds of Russians with miserable economic conditions and a failure to implement even marginally effective reforms. Nonetheless, at present, Vladimir Putin has a 65 percent approval rating.

With Russian Duma elections coming up on December 19th the struggle for supremacy seems to be shaping up into a three-man race. Opinion polls show former Prime Minister Yevgevny Primakov's Fatherland Party and the Communists are predicted to do well in the elections, followed by Yabloko party.

A media loyal to the sitting president Boris Yeltsin, has attacked Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, former P.M. Primakov and St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev. These three head up the Fatherland-All Russia party list for State Duma i.e. Russian congressional elections. The Fatherland party is composed of Russia's regional leaders much hated by Yeltsin's insiders. If one of the three withdraws the entire party would be disqualified from the election in accordance with the Byzantine-like Russian election laws. Recently, the Yeltsin media switched their harassment from Moscow Mayor Luzhkov to Primakov and Yakolev.

But what happens next year if Putin doesn't make any serious missteps, and is either fired or no longer has Yeltsin's support? If history is any indication -- this scenario is likely. Some Russian analysts believe that Yeltsin was convinced that the colorless Putin would not be a threat to his regime. He may also have believed that Putin would be easy to control from the sidelines when Yeltsin was out of office.

One poll, by the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, revealed Putin as the public's favorite - ahead of both Primakov and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov - for next year's presidential elections.

Such popularity has proven dangerous to Putin's predecessors.

The Yeltsin media sycophants, in the person of media tycoon Boris Bereszovsky, a kind of Ted Turner and CNN Russian style, are getting apprehensive about Putin's popularity. The media along with Yeltsin insiders known as the "the Family," are trying to convince Yeltsin to dismiss Putin.

It was a recent October meeting of Yeltsin's security chiefs that first kicked off media speculation that Putin would soon be sacked. Putin was no where to be seen and the excuse given did not seem to hold water.

The talk of an imminent ouster gained momentum when Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin told reporters that it would be "premature" to say that Putin was Yeltsin's chosen successor.

"The president holds a very high opinion of the prime minister's business qualities. But the question of a presidential successor does not stand now," Yakushkin said.

When he nominated Putin as prime minister on Aug. 9, Yeltsin made it clear that he wanted the 46-year-old former KGB agent and former deputy mayor of St. Petersburg to succeed him as president.

What is the likely outcome of the power struggle in Russia? Some Russian scholars contemplate the prospect that the two men with governing experience, Prime Minister Primakov and Putin, plus Yakolev and Luzhkov might form a coalition. It may not be merely a coincidence that Primakov and Putin are former KGB. The fact that each have served as Prime Minister may indicate the power and control still exhibited by the secret and almost invincible government agency.

If Putin remains in office as Yeltsin's Prime Minister, and that is a big if, than he is most likely to increase his lead in the polls if he exhibits even the most minor of leadership qualities. He made Russian headlines recently, when he said Russia was falling farther and farther behind in world dominance and that would have to stop. This gave the proud Russians a much needed morale boost.

If Yeltsin cans him Putin would probably join forces with Primakov and the popular Luzhkov to form some type of Troika - three-horse team. The configuration of president, prime minister and a third power position such as foreign minister in a year 2000 is a leadership dynamic that holds immense fascination for followers of the Russian scene. Such a grouping would be both popular with the Russian electorate and also offer a return to former Russian power and influence in the world.

For the most part, American observers and superficial press analysis of all things Russian are not grounded in reality. Russia is more Eastern than Western. That means that the economic and political tug of war going on in Russia is not merely an attempt to incorporate a free market system and the attendant Western style democracy into a flexible Russian form. Russia seems to be trying, one more time, to make sense of Western notions of government and its workings. Endeavoring to apply an incomplete and fragmented notion of republican attitudes and free market to a Russian schematic. It is a situation with so many variables that predicting the outcome is nearly impossible.

The variables in play include the powerful oligarchy, the district leaders, the Russian mafia, the military, recently the church, and the almost overwhelming tendency of Russians to look to central authority for direction.

However, recent polls indicate that Russians would like to change their civic leadership for a new crop gleaned from the intelligentsia, the church, the media, and certain members of the business community. Consequently, the Russian elections may hold unfathomable twists for Western minds. Some of the groupings may appear to be combining a Russian Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Jesse Ventura and Pat Buchanan into a ruling entity. In Russia, such an arrangement would be possible.

The former Soviet Union may eventually be heading towards a free market and a kind of representative democracy. However, it may not be to Western understanding or liking.

Next in Russia series: From Rurik to Reform.

Newsmax writers Diane Alden of Holly Springs, Mississippi, and Steve Farrell of Henderson, Nevada, are widely published research writers and former co-workers at Right Magazine, where Steve served as managing editor. Joint projects include their upcoming book Democrats In Drag: A Second Look at the Republican Party. Please e-mail any comments to Steve and Diane at

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