Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 178

Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s Minister of Emergency Situations, will head a new electoral coalition dubbed Yedinstvo (Unity). A statement of support for the new bloc from thirty-one regional leaders was read out during a press conference yesterday, which was attended by, among others, Saratov Governor Dmitri Ayatskov, Primorsky krai Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko, Kaliningrad Governor Leonid Gorbenko, Chukotka Governor Aleksandr Nazarov and Kalmykia President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Shoigu said to those attending that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had “stated directly that the government would support this bloc.” Indeed, later in the day Putin said in St. Petersburg that the government would support Unity, which, he added, “will stabilize Russia’s political situation.” Shoigu will take a leave of absence from his ministry to lead the new bloc. The number two on Unity’s list of candidates for December’s parliamentary vote will be Olympic wrestling champion Aleksandr Karelin (Russian agencies, September 27).

While welcoming governmental support for Unity, Shoigu tried to give the impression that the bloc was formed without the Kremlin’s knowledge, saying that it had caught Yeltsin by surprise (Russian agencies, September 27). There is little doubt, however, that the bloc was initiated by the Kremlin and the government as a way to cut into the electorate of Fatherland-All Russia, the coalition formed this summer by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov which includes a number of influential regional leaders. According to some observers, the bloc grew out of attempts this summer by Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky to enlist various regional heads in a pro-Kremlin bloc. Shoigu, however, said yesterday that Berezovsky had nothing to do with Unity’s formation. One of those whom Berezovsky had approached, Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev, said yesterday following a meeting with Putin that the prime minister did not hide the fact that the idea for the new bloc came from the government (Russian agencies, September 27). More broadly, Unity’s goal will be, as one newspaper put it, to “stop a huge distribution of power and property after the election”–that is, to maintain the current power relations with Russia’s political elite (Kommersant, September 25).

Oddly, Unity has picked up the support of some leftist opposition leaders. Deputy Duma Speaker Sergei Baburin hailed the new bloc, saying: “I think it is a good step toward healing of the tumor that is Fatherland-All Russia. Those governors who were going to surrender to Primakov, Luzhkov and [Tatarstan President Mintimer] Shaimiev now have an opportunity to change their minds” (ORT, September 25). As Baburin’s comment shows, the emergence of Fatherland-All Russia has created a certain congruence of interests between the Kremlin and its erstwhile “national-patriotic” opponents (including the communists), who stand to lose votes in the parliamentary election to Fatherland-All Russia.

Shoigu stressed during yesterday’s press conference that he has no presidential ambitions, meaning that Unity could become the vehicle for a presidential bid by Putin, whom Yeltsin designated as his heir apparent after naming him prime minister in August. The bloc, however, has already run into problems: While the leader of Russia is Our Home (ROH), former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, was reportedly inclined to join it, the move was reportedly scuttled by Vladimir Ryzhkov, the young leader of ROH’s faction in the State Duma. Ryzhkov wants ROH to contest the parliamentary elections independently (Segodnya, September 28).

The other potential fly in the ointment for a possible match-up between Unity and Putin is the new war in the North Caucasus: Putin has pretty much staked his future on the military campaign against Islamic radicals in Chechnya and Dagestan, the success of which is by no means guaranteed. Indeed, its failure could make him the latest former heir apparent.