'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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links