Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 221

Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s latest illness would appear to strengthen Vladimir Putin’s position. Indeed, while Yeltsin’s most recent cycle of (apparent) relative physical well-being, culminating with his attendance at the OSCE summit in Istanbul, was accompanied by rumors that Putin might be fired, the latest downturn in Yeltsin’s health has been accompanied by a jump in the already-high level of support for Putin, at both the elite and mass levels.

Recent data shows Putin’s public approval ratings at all-time highs. According to the results of a poll taken by the Rormir polling agency and released on November 28, Putin’s approval rating is now at 42 percent (NTV, November 28). Two polls–one taken by Rormir, the other by the Public Opinion Foundation, over November 20-21–found that 45 percent and 39 percent, respectively, of those asked would have voted for Putin to be president had the elections been held the following day. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov came in second: He would have received the votes of 16 percent and 11.9 percent of the respondents, respectively (Reuters, November 29).

What is more, the Public Opinion Foundation recently found that support for the military campaign in Chechnya, which can be seen as another indicator of support for Putin, is running higher in Moscow and St. Petersburg (77 percent) than in the nation as a whole (64 percent) or in small towns (57 percent). (Moscow Times, November 30). This is potentially very significant, in that it suggests that members of the well-off intelligentsia in the capital and in Russia’s second city, who in the past were the major fulcrum of support for Yeltsin, now see Putin as the guarantor of their relatively privileged position in the New Russia and as the leader most capable of preventing system-threatening forces from coming to power. Indeed, while many of these same voters in Moscow may approve of Yuri Luzhkov’s record as Moscow mayor, they may be less comfortable with Luzhkov’s strong criticism of Russia’s privatization process, and his hints that he might overturn some of its results if he becomes president or government head. Such attitudes help explain why putative “liberals” like United Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais have so strongly backed both Putin and the Chechen campaign.

Indeed, as Yeltsin fell ill last week, Chubais and another leading oligarch, Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, appeared to enter into a competition to become Putin’s “kingmaker.” Chubais has said on several occasions in recent days that Putin is the only possible successor to Yeltsin and that he, Chubais, would be happy to head Putin’s presidential campaign, if asked. Chubais headed Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign. For his part, Berezovsky came out last week in several interviews in support of Putin as the next president. In an interview published Saturday, Berezovsky said that Russia’s “oligarchs and everyone who has anything to lose have opted to vote for him,” saying Putin was the person now most able to ensure the “continuity of power” in Russia. Berezovsky, who is running for a seat in the State Duma representing a district in the republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, specifically pointed to Putin’s promise last week that his government does not plan to overturn Russia’s privatization. The tycoon called this statement “absolutely important” (Kommersant, November 27). On November 27, Putin appeared to be keeping Berezovsky at arm’s length, saying: “Berezovsky is a candidate to the State Duma. Now that the government has attained its first successes, candidates benefit from supporting it… We’ll see who backs us if the government makes mistakes” (Russian agencies, November 27).

On the other hand, Putin said last week that as a “private citizen,” he would vote in the upcoming State Duma elections for Unity, the coalition headed by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu that most observers believe was created at the initiative of key Kremlin insiders, particularly Berezovsky (Russian agencies, November 24). Various politicians, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, criticized Putin’s public endorsement of Unity, some of them charging that it violated Russia’s election laws. Shoigu, for his part, is one of the strongest backers of Putin’s Chechnya policy. Last week, Shoigu said that to criticize the military campaign there is “to betray the interests of the country and the Russian army” (Russian agencies, November 26).