Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 64

On March 26, in Washington, American specialists gathered to review the platforms and prospects of the leading contenders for the June 2000 presidential race. The event–the George W. Hoffman Memorial Seminar–was organized by George Washington University, and attended by a Monitor correspondent.

All in all, the panelists concluded that the situation is still very fluid and difficult to predict. All the likely candidates in the Russian electoral race have weaknesses, and the course of events (in Kosovo, or in the economy, for example) could change their chances for election radically. A great deal also depends on what happens in the December 1999 State Duma elections. A poor performance by the new Fatherland Party of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, for example, could sink his chances.

Dmitri Simes, head of the Nixon Center, described Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov as an extremely cautious, pragmatic man. Primakov is currently popular with the Russian public, who see him as a reassuring, grandfather figure (he is 69), and do not hold him responsible for the current economic mess–though that may change over time. Primakov has repeatedly said he does not want to become president, but if Boris Yeltsin were to leave office for health reasons Primakov would be a leading contender to replace him. In the Soviet era Primakov had quite liberal views, but managed to avoid being attacked by the dogmatists. Throughout his career as a journalist and academic he had served in bureaucratic organizations. Simes argued that as a perennial number 2, it is hard to predict how Primakov would behave as president.

Harvard University’s Timothy Colton analyzed Yuri Luzhkov. Luzhkov made a career as an accomplished organizer, avoiding overt political posturing, but, after being appointed mayor by Yeltsin in June 1992, he became the archetypal machine politician. He has built a solid power base, running the city with the help of some 250 corporations, neither public nor private. He portrays himself as a pragmatist, albeit with a social democratic and occasionally nationalist tinge. Voters in Russia’s provinces are wary of Moscow’s privileged position. Even assuming that Luzhkov was elected president, Colton noted that Luzhkov might have a hard time handling Russia’s eighty-nine regional governors and republic presidents, not to mention the State Duma. Luzhkov is accustomed to running the capital city as an autocrat, having done so since Moscow’s district councils were abolished in 1991.

The Defense Department’s Robert Otto noted that Gennady Zyuganov, despite his posture as leader of the opposition, in fact operates as a “reliable prop of the existing order.” Zyuganov is “not a communist in the generally accepted sense of the term,” Otto said, having abandoned Marxism in favor of patriotism and with a vicious condemnation of the “technocratic fascism” of the West. Zyuganov is “playing for time,” hoping that his “centrist” position will eventually prevail. He believes that social conflict–such as the parliamentary rebellion of October 1993–only plays into the hands of Russia’s enemies. He has been quietly courting Luzhkov, and is trying to persuade radical communists (such as Albert Makashov) to run as a separate bloc in the Duma elections.