'Primakov phenomenon' spells trouble for Yeltsin

VADIM LEVIN, the American-educated head of Uniex Direct, which uses junk mail to sell health products in Moscow, plans shortly to suspend all his commercial operations. Instead he will work full-time and without pay for Fatherland-All Russia, the new force on the Russian political scene.

Why was he doing this? Had he reason to be grateful to Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow and one of the principal figures behind the bloc? No, said Mr Levin, he was doing it from the heart, because he believed that with the new party, Russia had "a future as a civilised country".

Formed by Mr Luzhkov and Russia's regional governors, Fatherland-All Russia already posed a significant threat to Boris Yeltsin, but its influence expanded hugely last week, when the country's most popular politician, Yevgeny Primakov, agreed to come on board. Only a masterful player like the ex-prime minister, said the commentators, could have afforded to keep such an extended silence on the Russian political stage, a silence Mr Primakov finally broke on Tuesday, when he announced that he was committing himself to lead the new party. Pausing only to change metaphors, the commentators began speaking of a transformation of the country's political landscape.

It is certainly true that, for the first time, a credible challenge to Mr Yeltsin has appeared. He may be ailing but he holds the levers of power and has seemed, lately, to rule Russia by whim. However, in a country so vast, burdened and slow-moving, it is perhaps unwise to use the word transformation.

Unwelcome as was the alliance between Mr Primakov and Fatherland-All Russia, it did not come as a surprise to Mr Yeltsin, who has shown he is concerned to hand over power to someone he can trust. After the former premier, Sergei Stepashin, failed to prevent the Kremlin's enemies from creating the bloc in the first place, Mr Yeltsin launched a pre-emptive strike by naming the former security services chief, Vladimir Putin, 46, premier and favoured successor.

In the thin-lipped, cold-blooded young officer, whose watchword is "discipline", the Russian media detected a physical and ideological resemblance to the late Communist Party General Secretary, Yuri Andropov. Journalists already fancied they saw a likeness between Mr Primakov, nearing 70 and shaggy of eyebrow, and the late and retrospectively loved Leonid Brezhnev.

If presidential elections go ahead next year, though weary Russians are far from certain, given Mr Yeltsin's "categorical" promises not to cancel them - might we see a race between two General Secretary lookalikes? Is that what they mean by transformation?

After all the shocks they have experienced in recent years, Russians would appear to have more nostalgia for the stagnation of Brezhnev's rule than for the austerity of that of Andropov. The fact that Mr Primakov, after pulling Russia back from the brink last autumn, did little in his eight-month tenure as premier seems to account for the fact that for weeks he has topped the popularity ratings.

The press called it the "Primakov phenomenon". Politicians of all stripes were desperate to co-opt the former spy master and foreign minister, whose involvement with any party was seen as a guarantee of its success at the parliamentary elections in December. Success there is the key to the Kremlin next year.

Mr Primakov remained as mysterious as a sphinx until his announcement that he had accepted an invitation to run with Mr Luzhkov and the regional governors. He would chair their bloc's co-ordinating council and take the first position on their candidate list. At Moscow's House of Writers he said he had not been playing for attention, but taking time to "reflect, meet people and hear their opinions, which matter to me". If the pensioners who had tried to get into the packed press conference had heard him, they would have melted.

This weekend in Ufa, capital of the Volga region that is home to the Bashkiri ethnic group, Fatherland-All Russia is holding a congress to underline the message that it embraces not only privileged Moscow but also the impoverished provinces. As a formality, the grassroots must endorse Mr Primakov, but since he is already blessed by Mr Luzhkov, Vladimir Yakovlev, governor of St Petersburg, and Mintimir Shaimiyev, president of Tartarstan, that is a foregone conclusion.

Last week the usually media-shy Mr Primakov expounded a comforting vision of Fatherland-All Russia as a broad church uniting all people of common sense and goodwill who were committed to seeing Russia "powerful, democratic and flourishing". Russians did not deserve poverty and chaos, he said, arguing that only consensus could rescue the country.

Asked if he had presidential ambitions, he said he could say, "without twisting my soul", that he had not decided yet and it would depend on whether he felt the people wanted him. Asked how he and the Mr Luzhkov would work out which of them should be the bloc's presidential candidate, he said: "We will reach an agreement." His sights were set, for the time being, on the elections to the State Duma. Afterwards, it was important that a new government was formed on the basis of the majority in parliament. Only in that way was it possible to avoid "catastrophic changes of government".

He proposed changes to the 1993 constitution, which Mr Yeltsin wrote to give himself Tsar-like powers. The head of state, Mr Primakov said, should remain commander-in-chief of the forces and the face of Russia to the world. But day-to-day powers should pass to the premier, and the post of vice-president, abolished when Alexander Rutskoi rebelled against Mr Yeltsin, should be revived.

Commentators noted that while Fatherland-All Russia, boosted by the magical "Primakov factor", might look unstoppable, there was plenty of scope for the politicians to fall out before the elections. Some said that Mr Primakov, a lifelong apparatchik, had more to lose by sacrificing his superiority to the political fray than Mr Luzhkov, a dynamic but flawed figure, who could be planning to use his respected colleague as a shield.

Supporters of the ebullient mayor say that even if he is corrupt, then at least he has allowed some benefits to trickle down to Muscovites. His critics accuse him of vulgarity, riding roughshod over human rights, nationalist tendencies and crony capitalism.

The mayor could stand for the presidency, but there is a risk he would lose. If, on the other hand, Mr Primakov entered the Kremlin under the proposed new constitution, Mr Luzhkov could become his vice-president or premier. He would then be set fair to succeed.

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