Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 17

A new potential presidential contender–film director Nikita Mikhalkov–is the talk of the Moscow rumor mill. Mikhalkov, who directed and starred in the award-winning and internationally acclaimed “Burnt by the Sun,” is the subject of an article in the January 24th edition of London’s “Sunday Times.” The article reported that Boris Berezovsky, the tycoon and Commonwealth of Independent States executive secretary, and Vladimir Gusinsky, the founder of Most-Bank and the head of Media-Most, had agreed to back Mikhalkov in next year’s scheduled presidential elections. Berezovsky reportedly said that he would support Mikhalkov because the film director, unlike other potential candidates, both “thinks and worries about Russia” and is well known and loved. Mikhalkov said that while he was not seeking a political career, he would “seriously think about” running if “the people” indicated that they wanted to see him as president (Sunday Times, January 24).

Yesterday, however, Mikhalkov that he had no plans to run for president in 2000. “I am going to participate in the presidential elections like any Russian citizen as a voter,” Mikhalkov said. He added that it would not be “Christian”–and might even be “amoral”–to discuss the possibility of a presidential bid two years prior to the next scheduled elections, while the country was still being run by its “living and popularly elected president” (Itar-Tass, January 25).

Despite Mikhalkov’s subsequent disavowal of his hints of presidential ambitions, few observers in Moscow believe that either Berezovsky’s or Mikhalkov’s statements were off-the-cuff remarks. As one newspaper noted today, Mikhalkov’s comments and subsequent back-tracking was similar to contradictory statements which Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov made about his intentions vis-a-vis the presidency. Indeed, Luzhkov has to this day not formally announced his presidential bid, but virtually no one doubts that he will run (Kommersant daily, January 26).

According to “Kommersant daily,” Berezovsky’s sudden decision to announce that he would back a Mikhalkov presidential bid may be a tactical move directed against Yevgeny Primakov. The Russian prime minister, though he repeatedly denies any presidential ambitions, is increasingly spoken of as the likely choice of the country’s political and financial elite. “Kommersant,” citing unnamed sources, reported today that Primakov has repeatedly turned down Berezovsky’s offers to form an alliance. This would give weight to persistent reports that Primakov strongly dislikes the CIS executive secretary. Berezovsky’s backing for Mikhalkov might, in this light, be seen as a tactic to pressure Primakov into accepting his [Berezovsky’s] help (Kommersant daily, January 26).

Leading Russian politicians and officials reacted cautiously to Mikhalkov’s demarche. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, himself a presidential candidate, said he did not rule out the possibility that Mikhalkov would throw his hat into the ring. “Nikita Mikhalkov is an exceptionally talented person,” Yavlinsky said, adding that talented people had the right to say and do as they saw fit (Russian agencies, January 26). An unnamed high-level Kremlin official reportedly said that he understood Mikhalkov’s “desire and readiness” to run for president, but that the film director would have a very difficult time winning without his own party structure, especially if Luzhkov’s “Otechestvo” wins big in this year’s parliamentary elections. Commenting on Berezovsky’s role, the official said: “Doesn’t Boris Abramovich [Berezovsky] too often change presidents? The state and business are different things. Of course, maybe if you have accounts in Swiss banks and are sure that… you can always make it to [Moscow’s] Sheremetevo-2 [airport]… then you can ‘experiment’ with candidates for president” (Kommersant daily, January 26).