By Elizabeth Teague
Vladimir Putin’s election as president of Russia on March 26 seemed a foregone conclusion. Only a year before, it had been anything but. At that time, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov had been the favorite to succeed Boris Yeltsin as president. Also spoken of as potential presidential material was Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, whose recently established Fatherland movement seemed sure to do well in the legislative elections set for December 1999. Emboldened by Yeltsin’s failing health, Luzhkov earned the hostility of the Yeltsin entourage (commonly known as the “Family”) by calling on the president to resign. The Family were further alarmed by Luzhkov’s foolhardy threats to redistribute property that had been “illegally privatized” and by Primakov’s apparent threats to investigate corruption at the highest levels. Yeltsin was known to be jealous of Primakov’s rising popularity but, at the time, the Kremlin appeared to have found no presidential candidate of its own.
Within months, all that had changed. Primakov was sacked as prime minister in May 1999–though at first that only made him more popular with the electorate–and replaced by Yeltsin-loyalist Sergei Stepashin. The Family had already decided that the man to succeed Yeltsin should be Vladimir Putin, former head of the Federal Security Service and a man the Family felt they could trust. The idea that Yeltsin should take premature retirement was mooted as early as June. But, since the Family felt that the time was not yet ripe for Putin to enter the fray, Stepashin was appointed to fill the gap. The Kremlin’s timing proved immaculate. A year ago, success looked almost unobtainable. On May 7, Putin–the Kremlin’s favorite–was inaugurated as president.
The 1999 elections to the State Duma were universally seen as a primary election for the all-important presidential election of 2000. Masterminding the Kremlin’s strategy in both parts of what was essentially a single campaign was the now almost mythical Gleb Pavlovsky. Pavlovsky, once a Soviet-era dissident, heads a political consultancy called the Foundation for Effective Technologies. Reputed to be a consummate master of “dirty tricks,” Pavlovsky had worked as a consultant on Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign and, in 1999, the Kremlin hired his services again.
To fight off the threat posed by Primakov and Luzhkov and to secure Putin’s election, Pavlovsky and the Kremlin team had to tackle seven tasks:
(1) To identify a presidential successor. The Kremlin settled on Putin as early as the spring of 1999, and Pavlovsky has revealed that he was the one who first proposed, in June 1999, the idea of Yeltsin’s early retirement (Time Magazine, January 1 and April 10, 2000). At the time, the Family appeared to the outside world still to be casting around for a successor. This helped to lull the Primakov/Luzhkov camp into a false sense of security. Yeltsin first publicly identified Putin as a potential successor in August 1999, but made his definitive pronouncement only in his New Year’s resignation speech.
(2) To found a pro-Kremlin party to fight the December legislative elections. This was not achieved until September, with the creation of the “Unity” movement. Boris Berezovsky, close member of the Kremlin Family, played a key initial role in recruiting regional governors to the new “party of power.” Unity had no discernible policies but, once it was established, it acted as a magnet for regional governors keen to get on the right side of whoever was to be the new master of the Kremlin. (3) To discredit the two main rivals, Primakov and Luzhkov. This was achieved by an onslaught of televised attacks on the two men’s characters backed up by an Internet campaign that included the creation of spoof websites. Primakov was running for the Duma, aiming to use his position in the new parliament as a launch pad for a presidential bid. He was visibly distressed by allegations that he had, among other things, authorized an assassination plot against Georgia’s President Shevardnadze. Luzhkov withstood a whispering campaign implicating him in the murder of an American hotelier but cracked under threats of a corruption investigation into his wife’s business interests.
(4) To ensure that the movement backing Primakov and Luzhkov, Fatherland-All Russia (FAR), came third in the parliamentary elections. Pavlovsky himself told Independent Television (NTV) on December 21, 1999, that this deceptively modest aim had been the cornerstone of his entire campaign, and so it proved. As expected, the Communist Party (CPRF) came first in December’s election. It was closely followed by Unity, with FAR a distant third. This deprived Primakov of the parliamentary support he needed to launch a presidential bid. It guaranteed that, if the presidential election went to a second round, the Kremlin’s candidate would, in a re-run of the 1996 presidential race, face a rival not from FAR but from the Communist Party. This was a contest the Kremlin knew it could win, having fought just such a battle in 1996, and that it was accordingly eager to fight again.
(5) To secure funding for the presidential campaign by establishing a monopoly over Russia’s main financial flows. Already in the summer of 1999 it was estimated that the Family was in effective control of state bodies through which flowed some US$80 billion. These included the finance ministry, customs, tax service, state pension fund, railways, and fuel and energy ministry. Kremlin supporters were highly placed in the gas giant Gazprom, the electricity grid and the state arms-exporting agency.
(6) To gain control over as much of the media as possible. Of Russia’s three main TV channels, RTR was state-owned and Kremlin-controlled, and ORT was controlled by Family-member Berezovsky. The independent NTV, which tried to maintain balance in its reporting, was subjected to an apparently politically-motivated tax-audit while its holding company, Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most, fought off an attempt to bankrupt its media outlets. The 1999 media campaign was one of the dirtiest ever. Primakov was undermined in the eyes of the electorate by allegations of corruption and caricatured in the Berezovsky-financed press as an old man in a wheelchair; readers were constantly reminded that Primakov was even older than Yeltsin. A stream of corruption allegations was directed against Luzhkov and his wife. One small example: on the eve of the election, Luzhkov, who was running for re-election as Mayor of Moscow, found himself forced to deny media reports that he had magnanimously offered free housing in Moscow to 6,000 Chechen refugees.
Once Yeltsin had declared Putin his heir-apparent and Unity had been created, Russia’s regional governors scrambled to jump on the Kremlin bandwagon. Soon the leaders of most of Russia’s political parties followed them. After that, things moved fast and took on their own momentum. Putin rose steadily in the polls. The contrast between him and the old, sick and erratic Yeltsin was stark. The Chechen war gave Putin the definitive boost. Russians began to feel proud of themselves once again. After that, Pavlovsky’s final task was simple.
(7) To ensure that Putin did not lose support. Putin’s tough guy image struck a welcoming chord at every level of Russian society. Once the Acting President had topped 50 percent in the opinion polls, he had no need of any further support. He had, by contrast, to make sure that he did not lose any of the support he already had. This involved speaking only in vague generalities, publishing no election program, avoiding controversial issues and appearing to promise all things to all men and women.
In this, Putin resembled Britain’s Tony Blair in the 1997 parliamentary election. British voters were so fed up with two decades of Conservative rule that Blair’s Labour Party was virtually assured of victory. All Blair had to do was to avoid alienating any of this support. He was compared at the time by one journalist to a man carrying a bowl brim-full of soup across a room with a highly polished floor, straining every nerve not to spill a drop.
Finally, it has to be said that Luzhkov and Primakov played into the Kremlin’s hands. In their campaign to take over the Kremlin, they made every mistake in the book. Luzhkov put the wind up the Kremlin early on, declaring his intention to redistribute wealth, thereby giving the Family all the time they needed to launch a counter-campaign. Next, Luzhkov’s campaign peaked much too early–in the spring of 1999–whereas the Kremlin wisely waited until the fall before launching its campaign. Voters had forgotten Luzhkov’s allegations of Kremlin corruption by the time the Family began its counter-campaign.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s pretense that it had no candidate lulled Luzhkov into a false sense of security. His over-confidence alienated the regional governors from whom he originally expected the bulk of his support to come. They saw Luzhkov’s ill-advised declaration of his intent to re-divide the Russian Federation’s 89 constituent regions into a dozen “super-regions” as a threat. Luzhkov’s whole campaign was reduced, in Liliya Shevtsova’s memorable description, to a demand to “Get down and let us drive!” (Novaya gazeta, No 49, 1999). As soon as Unity was founded, the governors flocked to join. Their motivation was clear: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Putin was home and dry.
Elizabeth Teague is a senior analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.