Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 235

Besides the Communists, the major winners of the contest, Unity and the Union of Right-wing Forces (SPS), had two key elements in common: They openly embraced and received support from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and they backed the war in Chechnya. Indeed, Putin, who “as a private citizen” endorsed Unity earlier this month, was shown on television last week receiving SPS’s economic program from SPS leader and former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and speaking highly of it. This effectively deputized SPS as a kind of junior “party of power,” with Unity playing the role of senior partner. The SPS leaders–including Kirienko, Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada–have wholeheartedly endorsed the government’s “antiterrorist” operation in Chechnya. Indeed, Chubais, during a televised debate, accused Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky of treason for suggesting a thirty-day ceasefire and talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

SPS leaders also benefited from frequent and sympathetic interviews on Russian Public Television (ORT), the 51-percent state-owned station controlled by Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, and RTR state television, particularly during the last few weeks of the campaign. Both channels lavished even more extensive positive coverage on Unity–particularly on its leader, Sergei Shoigu, who heads the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS), and Aleksandr Karelin, the three-time Olympic wrestling champion who was Unity’s number two candidate. On the evening of Friday, October 17, just before the law forbidding election “agitation” went into effect, ORT aired several “news” features on Shoigu and the work of his ministry which can only be described as hagiographic.

On its news program that evening, for example, ORT ran a segment showing Shoigu visiting a camp housing refugees from the Chechen war. In it, the MChS chief said that he would arrest any doctor demanding money from refugees for medical services and promised to ensure that the refugees would receive their pensions and other benefits. Next, a woman refugee was shown thanking him for “caring for us” and providing food and a warm dwelling. This segment was immediately followed by an appeal from Shoigu, in which the emergencies minister, dressed in his ministerial uniform, apologized to those Russian regions in which his refugee work had kept him from campaigning. Shoigu then called on voters to join Prime Minister Putin in voting for Unity (ORT, December 17). Like many others during the campaign, these sequences, broadcast on the country’s most widely watched television channel, at minimum violated the spirit of Russia’s election laws, which prohibit government officials from campaigning for a specific party in their official capacity. Meanwhile, ORT and RTR carried out an unprecedented campaign of discreditation against one of the top leaders of the rival Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) coalition, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

While Unity’s strong showing was largely determined by its support by and for Putin and for the Chechen war, along with critical backing from Kremlin media, the party also tapped into the longing which many voters (particularly, it seems, those in the Far East and Siberia) have for a strong leader promising simple, “iron hand” solutions. Indeed, Segodnya newspaper commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky noted that basically this same group of voters made possible the surprise victory of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultra-nationalists in 1993 and General Aleksandr Lebed’s third-place showing in the 1996 presidential vote (NTV, December 19). Putin, who used various colorful images to describe what he would do to Chechen terrorists and demonstrated his judo skills before the cameras, appears to have touched the same chord, as did the leaders of Unity, whom Putin blessed and who were themselves presented as kind of “action heroes.” The Kremlin image-makers working for Putin and Unity undoubtedly knew how well these images would play with many voters.

Likewise, it was undoubtedly no coincidence that on Saturday (December 18), which marked the Day of Security Bodies, Putin told top security officials that Russia had “paid dearly” for harboring the “illusion that we have no enemies,” declaring: “Russia has its own national interests and we have to defend them” (Russian agencies, December 18). Earlier this year, when he was still head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin marked what would have been the eighty-fifth birthday of Yuri Andropov by laying flowers at the former Soviet leader and KGB chief’s grave on Red Square and monument at the FSB headquarters (and former KGB headquarters) on Lubyanka Square (see the Monitor, June 16).