Ex-PM throws down gauntlet to Yeltsin's anointed successor

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RUSSIA'S RESPECTED former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov injected some last-minute excitement into the campaign for tomorrow's parliamentary elections by declaring he had firmly decided to run for president next year.

Until his announcement, elections for the State Duma, previously billed as a test-run for the presidential poll, had lost significance as the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, had emerged as a strong favourite to inherit the Kremlin. Mr Putin, 47, has risen rapidly on a wave of patriotism connected with the war in Chechnya and few politicians are inclined to risk their career prospects by criticising him.

A poll yesterday indicated that 66 per cent of Russians still approve of the use of force in the rebellious republic.

Mr Primakov, 70, who shares with the younger man a background in the intelligence service, has also supported the "anti-terrorist campaign". But his decision to commit himself to the presidential race yesterday suggested he saw that eventually there might be public demand for someone offering a more subtle view of the Chechen problem. Mr Primakov, who also served as foreign minister, has already warned that Russia must be careful not to isolate itself.

His declaration of intent revived the chances of the Fatherland-All Russia (FAR) bloc, which he heads with Moscow's dynamic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, and powerful regional governors. A left-centre movement, it criticises President Boris Yeltsin and his ministers for having presided over bungled market reforms that have hurt millions of Russians.

It advocates a correction of the reform course rather than a return to Communism. FAR has complained that the Kremlin has tried to undermine it with a smear campaign and offers of money to candidates willing to abandon the bloc.

Before the news about Mr Primakov's intentions, polls suggested that the Communist Party rather than FAR was attracting those who wished to register a protest against Kremlin policies. Russians who want to give a vote of confidence to Mr Putin, Mr Yeltsin's chosen successor, are expected to favour the new Unity, or Bear party, headed by Sergei Shoigu, the Emergencies Minister and a friend of the Prime Minister.

Of the other 26 parties standing, the Union of Rightist Forces, led by Sergei Kiriyenko, another former prime minister, looks increasingly likely to win a place in the new Duma, because it has the support of the younger generation. And Grigory Yavlinsky's liberal Yabloko party, while criticised by some for standing on the sidelines, has the following of others who see it as a party that sticks to its principles.