This month could prove to be decisive in Russian politics, particularly if one persistent rumor of the last few weeks comes to fact. President Boris Yeltsin–it has been suggested–will step down by September 19, thereby putting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in place as acting head of state and ensuring that presidential elections, which, according to the constitution, must take place three months after a head of state steps down, will take place simultaneously with the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for December 19. This would accomplish several things.
First, it would force one presumed presidential aspirant, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov–who earlier this year moved the next Moscow mayor’s election from next June to December of this year–to decide whether to go for a virtually certain re-election as mayor or risk losing everything in the presidential contest. Even if Luzhkov agrees to forego a presidential run in favor of his new ally, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov–as Luzhkov has said he will do–holding presidential elections at the same time as the parliamentary contest, rather than next June, would seriously complicate matters for Fatherland-All Russia, the electoral coalition forged by Primakov, Luzhkov and a group of influential regional leaders.
Second, as acting head of state, Putin, whom Yeltsin named as his heir apparent last month, would have the advantages of incumbency–if not in terms of popularity, then in terms of the immense powers at the disposal of the Russian president, including over the state bureaucracy, state funds and state media. It would also give those who have a stake in supporting Yeltsin’s “successor”–the Kremlin insiders known as the “family,” who could lose everything under Primakov and/or Luzhkov–time to ascertain whether Putin can win democratic elections or whether they would have to be rigged or even canceled.
One publication, citing unnamed Kremlin sources, reported that Putin last week set up his own election team, which is preparing for both presidential and parliamentary elections (Vlast, September 6). Meanwhile, a September 6 account had it that Yeltsin and the “family,” including presidential administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin, has in earnest taken up the task of making Putin the next president, and that they see Primakov as Putin’s main opponent: “The task of the Kremlin is therefore to force a serious struggle on Primakov” (Moskovsky komsomolets, September 7).
On the other hand, the “family”–besieged by the current wave of corruption allegations and possibly facing criminal prosecution–may simply be looking for little more than an exit strategy. An Italian newspaper last month quoted a “reliable source” as saying that the Kremlin inner circle would view the option of early elections and a Putin presidency as a way to give Yeltsin “a secure pension and give a number of members of the ‘family’ an air ticket enabling them to emigrate” (La Stampa, August 31).
…OR BE REPLACED BEFORE YELTSIN STEPS DOWN?