Last weekend the press announced an event, the probability of which had been hotly discussed for a long time: the Fatherland and All Russia electoral blocs had almost reached an agreement on concluding an electoral coalition. Artur Chilingarov, one of Fatherland’s leaders, said, “An alliance of such influential political forces is theoretically inevitable, although in reality it is not so easy to achieve.” (A citation from Nezavisimaya Gazeta)

Meanwhile, only recently the anti-Luzhkov press predicted that the negotiations between the two movements would fail, because the Kremlin’s pressure on Mintimer Shaimiev and his compatriots in All Russia was too great. Vremya MN, one of the papers controlled by Boris Berezovsky, stated in the middle of last week, “The expectation that regional leaders would voluntarily obey Luzhkov as chief of a new coalition has not been justified… The majority of Russian politicians are sensitive and vindictive people and take special pleasure in putting upstarts in their places.” The paper noted gloatingly that the pinnacle of Luzhkov’s desires would have to be confined to overcoming the 5% barrier in the parliamentary election, not achieving “a change of government” (which the mayor of Moscow has more than once declared in his public speeches).

Segodnya, a paper which belongs to the media outlets controlled by the Media-Most holding, expressed its sympathy with Mintimer Shaimiev: “All Russia’s inability to achieve agreements, which is currently being cultivated by federal organs, may well turn into the movement’s ‘inability to form blocs’, which threatens to keep All Russia out of the next Duma.”

On the other hand, even after the principle agreement on forming the bloc was reached, papers noted certain nuances. For instance, Kommersant-daily announced that it is not Fatherland that will become the nucleus of the new coalition, but the governors of All Russia, “Even taking into account the current unity of the regional leaders, the range of their political preferences remains very wide, and it will be easier for them to recruit people who cannot appeal directly to Luzhkov into the coalition.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, in turn, predicted that All Russia is certain to encounter its greatest difficulties when forming a joint electoral list: “All Russia has many leaders, and they will certainly want to have as many people on the electoral list as possible, but Luzhkov, too, has his own obligations to a considerable number of his supporters.”

Furthermore, Nezavisimaya Gazeta maintains that so far Luzhkov and Shaimiev have not even reached an agreement as to the top three positions on the electoral list: Yevgeny Primakov, whom both of the leaders would like to take the first position, has not yet agreed to cooperate. As for Luzhkov, he himself is “still pondering what would be more advantageous to him from the viewpoint of his participation in the upcoming presidential campaign – whether he should become the leader of an influential Duma faction or mayor of Moscow.” (From “Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s” point of view, Luzhkov has much better chances of becoming the latter.) And Shaimiyev, in turn, has never declared his own presidential ambitions. Thus, the paper concludes, “The possibility cannot be ruled out that citizens who intend to cast their votes in favor of the allied list of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc will be asked to support an assemblage of various lobbyists, stand-ins, and myrmidons.”

The tension of this discussion and even the tone and vocabulary of the articles dedicated to the rather concrete topic of the creation of a new electoral bloc prove that state officials’ assertions that no information war is being waged in the Russian media are, unfortunately, false. And such assertions are being made regularly, along with “military” operations.

For instance, Gleb Pavlovsky, director of the Efficient Policy Foundation and “the Kremlin’s major consultant”, stated in an interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda that all of Luzhkov’s complaints about persecution by the Kremlin administration are “partly megalomania and partly a technological trick” to crown himself with a martyr’s halo and arouse electorate’s sympathies.

Meanwhile, when explaining in the same interview exactly what items in Luzhkov’s program of actions cause the Kremlin’s greatest aversion, Pavlovsky expressed complete certainty that the hypertrophied authority of the current Russian president will be nothing compared to that of any candidate for president. Pavlovsky gives the following picture of what may happen under next president: “There will be no keeping him in check without Yeltsin… He will have untied hands for four years… Plenty of time to decide how to manage one annoying trifle – the Constitution. As you know, this will be easy to do in Russia – we have managed to turn residence permits into ‘registration’, now why not turn omnipotent power into ‘the heavy burden of historical duty’?” It is absolutely evident that the matter again concerns Luzhkov: “The new owner of the Kremlin will turn the Yabloko movement into a grandiose plaster cast, just like the Church of Christ the Savior Luzhkov’s major reconstruction project in downtown Moscow – ed.. Here is domestic Orthodoxy, and here is domestic liberalism!. We’ll show you the president!”

However, an even greater danger, in the opinion of the Kremlin’s chief political technologist, is presented by the prospect of Primakov becoming the next president: “He is guided exclusively by the taste of power on his lips. He has already decided everything for all of us… His ‘maiden affair’ will be ‘the oligarchs’ case’. And after that there will be ‘the governors’ case’, in the heat of which Primakov will prohibit the CPRF… And in a year ‘the Moscow case’. Because Primakov will not tolerate Luzhkov’s power in Moscow. Anatoly Chubais calls Primakov a centrist – that is a good idea, and centrist Primakov will prove it by his actions, I believe. For example, by means of ‘the power monopoly case’. And after that he will go to Beijing to study strategy.”

We should note that these ominous predictions and anti-Utopian spirits which have been created within Yeltsin’s team are in sharp contrast to all the other articles about the former premier, the number of which increased noticeably recently following Primakov’s return from Switzerland. The media are discussing in different ways the possible options for Primakov’s future political career: here we have would-be coalitions with Luzhkov or Shaimiev, there the bloc of Primakov, Stepashin, and Luzhkov (or, vice versa, Stepashin, Primakov, and Luzhkov), etc. We must say that this discussion may not always appear to be 100% Primakov-friendly, but, as a rule, is fairly tactful towards him – another “phenomenon of Primakov”, as Vyacheslav Kostikov, another politician who once belonged to Yeltsin’s “inner circle”, put it in Moskovskie Novosti. The new wave of interest in Primakov is not weakening yet, despite (and maybe because of) the fact that Primakov himself is avoiding promulgating his own plans. Kostikov is of the opinion that currently the most popular political game is guessing Primakov’s intentions. On the other hand, Kostikov takes Primakov to be “strong as a soloist, and therefore he does not need any corps de ballet. Millions of Russians would support Primakov even without any ‘new doctrines’ or pseudo-intellectual dressing. Primakov should not hasten to attach himself to any coalition.”

The most peculiar thing is that Nezavisimaya Gazeta, previously not reputed for its pro-Primakov stance, shares this opinion and certifies, “Primakov is self-sufficient… If he enters any of the possible electoral blocs, it will not raise, but rather decrease, his chances of becoming the next Russian president.” After this assertion the paper explains in detail why Primakov would not profit from an alliance with Fatherland (the current volume of compromising materials against the mayor of Moscow is too great), why he should not ally with the gubernatorial blocs (they are perceived by voters as separatist associations), etc. “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” ends nearly in a sermon: “The only sacred support is the support of the people… This support, which many politicians are ready to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for, Primakov got for free – it is his basic capital, and he must justify the people’s hopes and run for president as an independent candidate.” It is difficult to guess whether this is a sincere call to the former premier, or, as Pavlovsky puts it, “a simple, narrow-minded, but efficient technological method”, but the very fact is unique: a pro-Berezovsky paper, which had previously condemned Primakov more than once, is now advising him not to miss his chance in the presidential election.

Luzhkov has apparently also temporarily passed the bottom point on the wheel of fortune. Apart from the information about his agreement with All Russia, the press has also published another piece of news which was sure to have been pleasant for the mayor of Moscow. The General Prosecutor’s Office has acknowledged the absence of a corpus delicti in the case of Yelena Baturina, Luzhkov’s spouse and the owner of the Inteco firm, the performance of which recently became an object of interest of law enforcement agencies. In this connection, Viktor Baturin, First Vice President of Inteco, has already told Kommersant-daily that the investigators should apologize to Baturina for their ungrounded suspicions about illegal export of hard currencies abroad.

Apart from that, a not-so-happy contact between Georgy Boos, chief of Fatherland’s electoral staff, and Sergei Ivanenko, the second-in-command of Yabloko’s Duma faction, did not result in a severance of relations between the two parties. Their negotiations will be continued “over each separate district” in order to form “a non-Communist majority” in the next Duma, as Ivanenko told Segodnya.

All in all, in the opinion of the majority of media, Luzhkov still remains the most important player in the electoral field: he is “the recognized leader of the pro-government, systemic, right-centrist, and centrist opposition,” as he has been termed by the Kremlin, Vek maintains. The paper continues: “Luzhkov was nominated for the role of the Kremlin’s major opponent, but not rival, by the very development of the situation. The Kremlin may keep attempting to discredit him, but by doing this it will only help consolidate his image as a persecuted hero in the people’s perception. It would be much wiser to negotiate.” “Vek” supports the idea of creating a Kremlin-Primakov-Luzhkov coalition, which “is unlikely to become the model of political harmony” but instead may turn out to be “a real guarantee of the irreversibility of progressive development.”

However, so far the Kremlin is evidently not considering Luzhkov a possible ally in the struggle for succession of power. At any rate, Moskovsky Komsomolets, when telling its readers about the eternal information battles, mentioned NTV’s abandonment of its policy of supporting and promoting the mayor of Moscow and the readiness of all Media-Most leaders to support the candidate for president named by the Presidential Administration on short notice as one of the conditions for a cease-fire in the current information war. As “Moskovsky Komsomolets” notes, “Of course, the NTV authorities are not kamikaze, and perhaps they would be willing to support the candidacy of Stepashin, who currently suits practically all of the Russian elite pretty well, but the Presidential Administration is not at all sure that Stepashin is exactly the man they need as the next president.” The paper states that the final decision regarding Yeltsin’s Kremlin-nominated “successor” has not yet been made: Berezovsky is actively lobbying for Alexander Lebed, his protegee of long standing, and is simultaneously constantly promoting Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. “Not just Gusinsky, but the rest of the oligarchs as well, can on no account feel pleased by the suggestion that they strike the necessary attitude on demand. After all, what is it that makes Berezovsky better than them?” “Moskovsky Komsomolets” believes that the current information warfare will not be stopped in the near future, at least until the Kremlin Administration’s announcement (if any) that it is “ready to regard Stepashin or any other political figure who is acceptable to the entire elite as Yeltsin’s successor.”

Stepashin’s name has recently started to be mentioned more and more often by the media in the electoral context. Kommersant-daily writes in an article dedicated to the Russian government delegation’s visit to the US that the current Russian premier has made innuendoes that he intends to run for president. The article is titled “When over the ocean, Stepashin saw his presidential future”. The paper even asserts that “in a close circle of friends” Stepashin afforded a fairly risky statement concerning his meetings with US officials: “Now they in the US understand that there are more than just senile invalids in wheelchairs here in Russia.” This statement is very untypical of Stepashin, whose main virtues the media have up to now unanimously taken to be his absolute loyalty to the president, his humility, and his “absence of any distinct political preferences”. (Quoted from “Vek). Interfax-vremya maintains that “since the moment of his appointment, Premier Stepashin has never stopped thinking about how to lessen the risk of his possible dismissal.” However, based on the information about Stepashin’s rather risky behavior during his visit to the US, “Kommersant-daily” states that Stepashin “has, in fact, entered the presidential race.” The paper even names “the key player in Stepashin’s team”, namely Interior Minister Vladimir Rushaylo. On the other hand, Stepashin’s major political resource is, if course, his post as chairman of the cabinet. It is so far difficult to say for certain whether or not he will manage to become the favorite in the presidential campaign. “Vek” notes that, “judging from the experience of the past year and a half, each appointment of a new premier has pursued one goal from the very beginning – that of securing succession of power. However, up to now no premier has managed to cope with this task.”

The Kremlin Administration itself has not yet found a solution to this problem, which is vitally important to it, either, but it is doing its best with all the resources available to it. Last week the media continued discussion of the theme of free and fair elections, which had been set by the president not long before. Vremya MN informed its readers about the formation of special working groups of representatives of the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Interior Ministry, and the FSS. The groups, which will be formed “in the name of a free and fair election in 1999”, will be engaged in “operative detection and suppression of cases of violation of the norms of electoral legislation.”

Many observers appraise this innovation negatively. Obshchaya Gazeta, for instance, is of the opinion that concern for the fairness of elections is the prerogative of nobody but civil society. “Obshchaya Gazeta” sees just another dirty trick in the government’s preoccupation with this topic: “The officious campaign ‘for fairness’ is an important element of this regime’s political strategy… Its goal is simple and clear – succession of power and preservation of the political positions of Yeltsin’s clan for the ‘after-Yeltsin’ period.”

In the paper’s opinion, the idea of holding the elections strictly according to the established rules is a beautiful method of ousting all disagreeable figures from the political arena. The powers that be will have numerous possibilities to do this. They may start with the electoral law’s article on the procedure for financing electoral blocs and candidates: “only the ‘poor but honest’, like candidates from the CPRF, will keep within the officially permitted sums, which means that all the rest may be legally ousted by forbidding them to run or canceling the results of the vote.”

It is likewise easy to reveal cases of abuse of power, like the illegitimate use of the premises, infrastructure, or technical capacities of state institutions in the interests of this or that candidate: “Everybody in Russia who can lay his hands on such facilities abuses them, although so far nobody has been accused of these ‘pranks’. But why not try to accuse?”

Another reason why use of legal methods to fight rivals is very attractive, the paper remarks, is that one may use (and abuse) them with no fear of punishment. “For instance, the police ruin the electoral campaign of a certain candidate. What can this candidate do to the police for that? Absolutely nothing.”

Thus, Obshchaya Gazeta concludes, in the conditions of “selective legality”, the one who controls the FSS, the Interior Ministry, the State Tax Service, prosecutor’s offices, etc., will always be the master of the situation. But as for predicting the results of a “controlled election”, even the one who controls it is unlikely to be able to do so. Vek shares the opinion that “the new wording of the law on parliamentary elections will allow the powers that be to get rid of ‘disagreeables’ by resorting to legitimate means.”

Maksim Sokolov, an Izvestia political observer, has no doubt that the results of the upcoming parliamentary election will in any case be bad for the electorate: “The official start of the electoral campaign is scheduled for August 19, but already now, three weeks prior to that date, the state of deadlock in which the would-be favorites of the electoral race have found themselves is obvious.”

The left-wing forces, which last week were called upon by General Varennikov to unite into a bloc to be called “For Victory”, reacted rather inertly to this idea. The Communists’ long-standing ally, the Agrarian Party, stated that it is already too late to talk about a bloc and even (according to Kommersant-daily) suspects the CPRF of pursuing goals to strengthen its own party and completely disregard the interests of its would-be allies. Vremya MN, commenting on the nearly absolute absence of any reaction to the Communists’ heated calls, noted that Gennady Zyuganov has apparently lost his influence over both the patriotic parties and the regional leaders, many of whom used to be the CPRF’s traditional means of support.

Sokolov believes that Fatherland’s position is slightly better than that of the CPRF: “No Moscow money can recoup the crying ideological contradictions which comprise the very backbone of Fatherland… A revolutionary party of power is nonsense… A party of nouveau riches at the head of the protest electorate is no less nonsense.” As a result of the attempts to conclude an alliance with Fatherland, Sokolov thinks, Yabloko will also lose its position: “If there is a party of power which is quite free of the horrible federal blemish, then why do they need Yabloko when they already have Fatherland?”

However, Izvestia thinks that the main proof of the “ideological vacuum” on the eve of the election is the universal desire of all movements to win Primakov over to their side: “This is a shameful and at the same time crystal-clear confession that the future people’s representatives have no other ideas or principles than the wish to become deputies.”

In this situation, “Izvestia” predicts, the next Duma is likely to be characterized by “an unusually harmonious appearance: a very small number of especially nimble political intriguers who will be dwarfed by the unbounded majority of local big shots. A multi-party system eliminating itself with such reckless resoluteness is indeed very rare.”

On the other hand, as the official start of the electoral campaign draws near, the question of the ideological vacuum of the current electoral blocs is acquiring the features of an academic question, while the problems of solving tactical tasks and forming strategic blocs are becoming more and more topical.