Russia In Crisis: Big city boss now tipped to succeed Luzkhov favourite for presidency

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The Independent Online
THE SACKING of Yevgeny Primakov as Russia's Prime Minister clears the way for the rise of a politician whose interventionist economics and nationalist politics arouse suspicion among Western leaders.

Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, can only benefit from the departure of a premier who, in his eight months in office, moved to the top of the list of those tipped to succeed Boris Yeltsin when his presidential term ends next year.

Although Mr Primakov's staff were hinting yesterday that he intends to remain in politics, and will "ponder" offers from parties, he lacks the backing to fight an election successfully without the benefit of the public platform that the premiership brought.

The 62-year-old mayor, by contrast, is remarkably well-resourced, and is better- positioned than ever to win the Kremlin - provided elections go ahead as planned.

"Luzhkov looks to be the winner from all this as long as democratic procedures are followed," said Alexei Pushkov, a leading political commentator.

Yesterday, the mayor, head of the Fatherland Party, underscored his superior position by offering Mr Primakov the chance to top his list of candidates in December parliamentary polls. Another sign of his strength came when Grigory Yavlinsk, the liberal Yabloko Party chief, said he was working on a strategic partnership with Mr Luzhkov's party.

None of this will cause much delight among Western policy-makers, who have thrown vast sums into efforts to support an erratic Mr Yeltsin during his painful - and now largely stalled - transition to market economics and democracy.

Like Mr Primakov, Mr Luzhkov's commitment to Western remedies is patchy.

A charismatic self-publicist, renowned for his broad grin and leather caps, he has established what amounts to a business empire in Moscow's city hall, including substantial media holdings. Although he likes to cast himself as a capitalist with a Slavic face, he can be autocratic and interventionist. His solution to the problems of the failing Zil motor giant was to seize control of it.

Nor is he by any means an uncritical fan of Western politics. Human rights are not high on his agenda - as Moscow's visitors from the Caucasus regularly discover at the hands of the city's police. He has supported a proposed union with Belarus, and was one of the first to call for Russia to give military assistance to the Serbs after Nato bombing began.

Received political wisdom has it that he is unpopular in the regions, which resent Moscow's relative wealth. But in recent months he has worked hard to build a nationwide base.

The presidential poll is due next June, but its timing depends on whether Mr Yeltsin can complete his term. The physical omens are not promising - especially if he faces a gruelling battle with parliament.

Once again, he is unsteady on his feet, at times incoherent, and unusually bloated - all familiar signs that another bout of illness may be looming. If so, it would be another entry in the list of ailments that have plagued his period in office, from heart attacks to double pneumonia, bronchitis, a bleeding ulcer and sheer exhaustion.

And yet, commentators have predicted his demise before - only to see him rebound, often completing a burst of work before collapsing anew.

He is a tough Siberian, who may well be able to stagger to the end of his term. If he does so, it will be as a lonely figure. Politically, he has few allies, beyond the venal, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who was crowing yesterday about his party's status as the president's lone supporter.

Pro-marketeers such as Anatoly Chubais, loosely called Russia's "democrats", have applauded the ousting of Mr Primakov. But neither they nor any other politician with any serious long-term ambitions will want to be closely associated with a flagging President who now spends his time fighting small-minded power struggles.

Mr Yeltsin is helped, though, by the general weakness of political opposition in Russia. His enemies are often muted by a desire to keep their parliamentary perks, by divisions within their ranks, an undemanding electorate and their own feeble commitment to ideological positions.

The Communists - the largest party in the State Duma - are strong on angry rhetoric, but weak on action, and have shown little sign of amassing enough new support to win an election. Their plodding leader, Gennady Zyuganov, threatened street protests in answer to this week's dismissal of the government. The thin ranks of demonstrators who actually turned out bore testament to his ineffectual leadership.