Viktor Gerashchenko is prepared to restrict the president’s powers

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The presidential campaign might be entertaining, says Moskovskii Komsomolets. A declaration of intent to run for president “as the sole representative of the opposition” has come in from Viktor Gerashchenko – whose turns of phrase are even more lively than Viktor Chernomyrdin’s, according to Moskovskii Komsomolets. So far, however, experts are skeptical about the ex-banker’s popularity among voters and the opposition’s ability to nominate a common candidate.

Gerashchenko, former Central Bank chairman and now chairman of the board at YUKOS, announced his intention to run as an independent at National Strategy Institute round-table conference on “The Role of the Opposition in the Change of Administration in 2008.”

The Vremya Novostei newspaper reports that Gerashchenko, also known as Hercules, worked up to his announcement by sharing some recollections and evaluations of the current situation.

According to Gerashchenko, “the past 25 years of Soviet and Russian history have been negative.” Gerashchenko noted that back in December 2003 he was invited to run for president as the Motherland (Rodina) bloc’s candidate, but “it was not a serious prospect at the time.” The situation in Russia has changed since then, says Gerashchenko – especially in the economy. “The Stabilization Fund is being used unwisely” – mostly invested in American bonds, thus “helping to reduce the US budget deficit.” As for the political system, Gerashchenko said he cannot understand “how it’s possible to have appointed regional leaders if a country isn’t a monarchy.” He then noted that “opposition parties won’t achieve much if they don’t unite to nominate a common presidential candidate.”

Concluding the brief situational analysis, Gerashchenko moved on to his main point: “Despite protests from my family, I am prepared to be the sole candidate for the opposition forces.” He added: “I don’t think this announcement can do any harm – it will only promote the public debates we need.”

In an interview with the Kommersant newspaper, Gerashchenko explained his advantages as follows: “I’m not saying that I’m the best person for the job and no one else can do it. However, I would be a more neutral opposition candidate than a member of any party.”

Kommersant notes that Gerashchenko is the second politician to announce his intent to be the sole opposition candidate: former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov revealed similar plans in autumn 2005.

Gazeta.ru takes the view that Kasyanov doesn’t intend to abandon his presidential ambitions; he will be nominated at the People’s Democratic Union congress on June 2.

Despite this, Kasyanov said that he welcomes Gerashchenko’s “courageous” decision: “I welcome Viktor Gerashchenko’s intention to take part in the presidential race, and I have always had great respect for him. At all stages of his life, Gerashchenko has shown himself to be an honest and principled person.”

Kasyanov expressed his wished for Gerashchenko in an interview with Kommersant. He would like Gerashchenko to “join the Other Russia – and, better still, become the leader of a patriotic organization – lime Motherland used to be.”

Kasyanov: “And it would be ideal if he joined the Other Russia’s political council.”

When Kommersant asked whether he will meet with Gerashchenko to discuss which of them should be the common candidate, Kasyanov replied evasively: “I’m prepare to negotiate with anyone, but we haven’t reached that stage as yet. If he joins the Other Russia, that would be another topic, but it isn’t ripe yet.”

Meanwhile, Gerashchenko showed that he is prepared to make concessions. When Vremya Novostei asked what would happen if Kasyanov also wishes to run for president, Gerashchenko responded immediately: “No problem! Even if I manage to collect the 2 million signatures required for nomination – and I have no doubt that I will – I would yield the right to anyone else who stands a better chance of winning.”

But soon afterwards, in an interview with APN, Gerashchenko corrected himself, noting that if any party candidates come forward after he collects his signature, he would “feel uncomfortable letting down the people who have expressed confidence in me.”

Gerashchenko also told APN about his vision of Russia’s future political order. He believes that our country should look to the parliamentary republics of Europe. When asked if he would be prepared to restrict the head of state’s powers, Gerashchenko replied: “Let’s put it this way – I wouldn’t be opposed to that.”

According to Gazeta.ru, Gerashchenko is being supported within the Other Russia by the United Civil Front (OGF) and its leader, Garry Kasparov. It was Kasparov who suggested to his coalition colleagues that Gerashchenko would make a good candidate. In an interview with Echo of Moscow Radio on May 14, Kasparov said that “there can be more than one candidate, but the most important thing is for hardline anti-Kremlin leaders to agree on an action program.” The Other Russia intends to present this program by late summer. On May 15, OGF spokeswoman Marina Litvinovich confirmed that the OGF supports Gerashchenko: “We have a high opinion of his chances. The OGF very much welcomes his decision to run.”

Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky has a different theory. Novye Izvestia quotes him as saying that the move to nominate the YUKOS chairman as a presidential candidate is being promoted by “figures close to the Kremlin, and certain parts of the Communist Party.”

In an interview with Radio Liberty, Belkovsky said that certain members of opposition parties and circles close to the Kremlin have “prompted Gerashchenko to make this decision, in the hope that he might become a compromise figure this autumn, when attempts to nominate common candidates for Kremlin clans and opposition forces reach an impasse – as they almost inevitably will.”

However, judging by statements reported in the media, opposition party activists seem in no hurry to endorse Gerashchenko’s nomination.

Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy leader of Yabloko, says he doubts that Gerashchenko’s intentions are serious. In an interview with Gazeta.ru, he described Gerashchenko’s announcement as “a display of his peculiar sense of humor – striving to speak of such extremely questionable matters in a very serious tone.” According to Mitrokhin, Yabloko does not intend to endorse Gerashchenko: “I don’t see why we should support the first person who comes along and decides that he wants to be president.”

In an interview with Kommersant, Mitrokhin said that it’s fundamentally unrealistic to assume that any candidate could be satisfactory for both the left and the right, including radicals. Mitrokhin also doubts whether Gerashchenko, “with no political exerience,” could become the kind of candidate required to unite the pro-democracy forces.

Union of Right Forces (SPS) leader Nikita Belykh told Kommersant that his party would only support a common candidate if he is nominated after winning some sort of primaries involving a choice of candidates: “We might endorse either Gerashchenko or Kasyanov – but only if they’re prepared to earn the right to be the chief democratic candidate, rather than appointing themselves to that role.”

SPS federal political council secretary Boris Nadezhdin told Gazeta.ru that Gerashchenko’s announcement was “a pleasant surprise,” but declined to explain why he found it pleasant.

The Communist Party (CPRF) had spoken out against Gerashchenko earlier. Oleg Kulikov, CPRF Central Committee secretary, said that the CPRF will not vote for this candidate. “We’ll have our own candidate,” said Kulikov in an interview with Echo of Moscow Radio.

According to experts, Gerashchenko lacks political experience and real support in the opposition parties, while voters may be discouraged by the candidate’s age – he will turn 70 this December.

Valery Fedorov, general director of the VTsIOM polling agency, told Gazeta.ru: “Unless a politician is among Vladimir Putin’s closest allies and in the forefront of Russian politics, a declaration of intent to run for president won’t raise that politician’s rating to any substantial extent.”

Gerashchenko’s only advantage, according to Fedorov, might be the fact that he wants to appeal to both the left and the right: “Russian citizens don’t make any ideological demands of the president. In other words, what a candidate needs is a cocktail of left-wing and right-wing convictions.” Federov concludes that at this stage, Gerashchenko risks meeting the same fate as Kasyanov and Kasparov – whose support ratings are also minimal, although they are well-known as individuals.

Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Political Techniques Center (in Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal) says that Gerashchenko’s lack of political experience is a disadvantage. But Stanislav Belkovsky has an answer to that, based on examples from recent history. In an interview with Radio Liberty, Belkovsky notes that Boris Yeltsin wasn’t involved in politics until October 1987 and Vladimir Putin wasn’t involved in politics until August 1999. “Political experience can be acquired,” says Belkovsky. “The most important thing is to have plenty of backbone and a strong will. And in my view, Gerashchenko’s career to date indicates that he does have these two essential qualities.”

Alexei Makarkin also maintains that Gerashchenko won’t be able to gain support among opposition party leaders. In his view, while Gerashchenko may be acceptable across a range of ideological trends, this has a downside as well: “He is also an outsider to everyone. The Communists see him as someone whose career was all too successful in the Yeltsin era. The liberals think his image is too Soviet. The patriots haven’t forgotten his brief and confusing stint in Motherland.” Makarkin concludes: “A candidate who initially seems acceptable to everyone might end up being chosen by no one.”

But Stanislav Belkovsky told Radio Liberty that Gerashchenko “has a certain amount of voter support, and support among the regional branches of some leading opposition forces – the CPRF and Yabloko.” However, says Belkovsky, “it’s too soon to say whether his candidacy might be supported at the level of federal party leaders.”

Novye Izvestia quotes Belkovsky as saying: “At this stage, naturally, Zyuganov and Yavlinsky won’t support Gerashchenko. But we can’t rule out the possibility that the situation may change by September or October, if external conditions are favorable. For example, if Putin doesn’t name one particular person as his designated successor and if Yabloko and the CPRF aren’t forced to support such a successor by nominating token candidates.”

Actually, another candidate might emerge from the Other Russia shortly. Belkovsky predicts that this will be Sergei Gulyaev – a former member of the St. Petersburg municipal legislature and one of the organizers of the Dissenter March in St. Petersburg.

In an interview with Gazeta.ru, Gulyaev confirmed that “there is some talk of that,” but as yet he can’t say for sure whether he intends to run for president: “Talks are still under way, nothing is clear yet, nothing has been announced. We should have a clearer picture by autumn.”

Grani.ru comments: “Endless talk-fests on the topic of ‘how we can bring down Putin and his successors’ can only be useful at the theoretical level. But if this tree of life is to sprout some leaves, the opposition needs specific individuals who perform specific actions – for example, announcing their intention to run for president in 2008. And the more of them there are, the better. Gerashchenko has been one of the first.”

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