All this speculation was undoubtedly viewed as nitpicking by the new Kremlin leader and his enthusiasts in the West. In any case, they had little to worry about: the early presidential elections, set for March 26, looked likely to be something more closely resembling a referendum than a generally competitive contest. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky all threw the Kremlin a bone by casting their hats in the ring. While they openly admitted they had no prayer of winning, their participation would at least make the contest look a bit more legitimate. Fatherland-All Russia’s leader, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, remained mum. But given that half of his coalition–All Russia–announced it was backing Putin, speculation mounted that Primakov would withdraw his candidacy in return for the post of State Duma speaker.
But there were two clouds on Putin’s horizon. One was the war that had transformed him from an obscure career KGB officer into a wildly popular prime minister and head of state. The Chechen rebels were putting up much fiercer resistance than expected, forcing the Kremlin’s spin machine and the well-controlled media to work overtime. The other cloud hovered over the economy. Some observers warned that the boost given domestic industry by the August, 1998, ruble devaluation was wearing off, and that world oil prices would soon fall. Given Russia’s huge external debt and the growing impatience of foreign creditors, they warned, Russia could yet face a new–and more dangerous–debt crisis.