One of the last week’s political sensations was the electoral alliance between Sergei Stepashin and Yabloko. There has been no shortage of comments on this “political marriage of convenience”, as the newspaper Segodnya has put it.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta immediately noted that from now on the former prime minister has acquired an opportunity to play his own role “and not dance to somebody else’s tune”. This is a compliment with a tinge of provocation. This statement is proven by the fact that in the same article the newspaper condescendingly commends the movement for their ability to “confide in a person who earlier warned them that he might fail to stand the pressure from above”, and then “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” notes that the agreement between Stepashin and Yabloko concerns principles of the alliance itself rather than the conditions of the cooperation. According to Igrunov, head of the Yabloko electoral headquarters, the only guarantee that Stepashin will not leave the movement at the most decisive moment is “human honesty”.

The newspaper Kommersant-daily commented on this matter more unambiguously: “Nothing but the joint announcement hinders Stepashin from becoming discontented in Yabloko and he may leave the top three of the electoral list on the eve of the election. By this he will make the Yabloko leader a political widow.” The newspaper “Moskovsky Komsomolets” is astounded at this political naivety of Grigory Yavlinsky, who thinks that “Stepashin’s public oath is enough to be sure of his fidelity… Well, then he is a poor expert in our generals if he thinks that it is possible to make them honest people in such a young-pioneerish way.”

However, Vremya MN does not worry about either sides of the agreement: “It is likely that Yabloko’s readiness to include Stepashin in its top three without fearing to lose him in a few weeks and consequently drop out of the race is caused by the fact that the Yabloko leader was presented guarantees. And these guarantees have been presented not by Sergei Stepashin.” In the same issue of “Vremya MN” this thought was developed by Yury Afanasyev, a connoisseur of Russian political morals. He stated, “Stepashin’s dismissal may only be formally called a dismissal. In reality, the president has just commissioned one of his subordinates from the state service to the sphere of party building.”

In the opinion of Afanasyev, as the prime minister, Stepashin was blamed for the lack of industry in fighting Yury Luzhkov and his Fatherland. At the new post he is to make up for this flaw. Stepashin has done that. Although there was some delay, for he unsuccessfully tried to come to an agreement with the right-winged, the task of “changing the political configuration” was fulfilled. As Afanasyev noted, the current task of the governing elite is to fill the electoral field with its own people, however inane and dubious they may be, since this will mechanically oust “strangers”. In other words, the elite aspires to involve as many of its proteges as possible in the electoral process in order to make it more controllable. Rector (director) of the Russian State Humanitarian University Afanasyev notes, “Such a ‘pre-political’ manner of solving political problems is characteristic for clan communities, in particular, for many Asian regimes.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Kommersant-daily are sure that it is Yavlinsky that has been receiving dividends from the alliance thus far. The “myth about Yabloko’s ‘bloc-insolvency’ is debunked”, as “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” has noted. “Kommersant” notes that the movement has received an additional chance in the presidential election “to finally come to the executive branch, even if it be the post of the prime minister but not the president”.

Segodnya considers this alliance to be equal in rights and hopes that by 2000, Yabloko and Stepashin will create a “party of intelligent and honest power”. The quotation is taken from Yavlinsky’s speech at the seventh congress of the movement, at which the terminal decision on including Stepashin in the federal list was made. The third place in this list belongs to Vladimir Lukin, who commented at the congress on the new abbreviation of the movement consisting of the first letters of the top three members of the party: “YaSL”. Inasmuch as this word reminds the Russian word “yasli”, (meaning “crib, trough”, or “day nursery” – translator’s note), Lukin noted that “it is in the crib that the mightiest backbone of the modern civilization, Jesus Christ, was born”. This unexpected parallel, according to “Segodnya”, caused a stormy reaction of Yabloko members who “obviously were not averse to seeing the new Savior of Russia in the party’s alliance with Stepashin. They are also not averse to coming to power to correct the errors in reforms with the new president, even if the next president is not Grigory Yavlinsky.”

The fate of the liberals left by Stepashin was also interesting for the press.

The weekly Vek regarded the failure of the former prime minister’s attempt to unite with the right-winged as an evidence of a “profound crisis of the right idea”. “Vek” believes that it is only thanks to “the steadiness of the serene Chubais, as well as his finances and resourcefulness,” that the right spirit “has not yet stagnated and evaporated.” In the opinion of “Vek”, saving the bearers of this spirit, Chubais is acting futilely from the tactic viewpoint, but his activities are strategically far-sighted.

Segodnya also holds that the alliance of the right-winged forces is a merit of Chubais, or, to be more exact, “his victory and defeat”. The victory, according to “Segodnya”, is that after long negotiations Sergei Kirienko and Konstantin Titov have joined the bloc. “There are some grounds to suppose that some economic levers have been pulled: Chubais is said to have helped Transneft head Dmitry Savelyev, Kirienko’s friend and supporter, retain his post, after Fuel and Energy Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny demanded that he be dismissed.” Moreover, rumors are circulating about “business collaboration” between Russian Joint Energy Systems (RJES) and the group Siberian Aluminum headed by Oleg Deripaski, “who, in turn, is noted for his links with Voice of Russia and Samara Governor Konstantin Titov personally”. Still, the foundation of the bloc of the right-winged cannot be called a full-fledged victory: it is still problematic that they will surpass the 5% barrier in the parliamentary election without Stepashin’s support.

The only thing that can “console” the right-winged in this situation is that Our Home Is Russia (NDR) has also failed to obtain the former prime minister. Anatoly Chubais said in the special announcement in the newspaper Demokratichesky Vybor that “Stepashin acted in the absolutely right way… The NDR has no chances whether or not Stepashin joins it”. Chubais also compared the NDR to the Bourbones, who, as is known, forgot nothing and learnt nothing: “A party of power deprived of power does not have any chance for success. Surpassing the 5% barrier is out of question for the NDR without a distinct ideology and without the administrative resources that the party lost with Chernomyrdin’s dismissal. Segodnya asserts that it is Chubais who persuaded Stepashin not to run in the election at the top of the NDR list. Chubais’ deed was like that of Karandyshev, a character of Alexander Ostrovsky’s play “The Girl without Dowry”, who, being the deceived bridegroom, exclaimed, “Then, let nobody have you!” and killed the girl.

Segodnya is of the opinion that both of the rivaling parties, Right Cause and the NDR, may collapse toward the bottom together without Stepashin. This statement may be proven by the fact that “the upcoming electoral campaign will be marked with severe polemics between these two movements about the eternal Russian question ‘Who is to blame?'”.

As for the right-winged themselves, they are quite optimistic about their chances, especially after the merger with Voice of Russia. Its leader Titov has announced that he does not intend to run for the Duma himself but will “support the new coalition because he believes in it”, as Vremya MN has noted. Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the alliance of the right-winged forces, has already displayed to voters that the electoral rhetoric of the right-winged will be based on criticism of the “bureaucratic capitalism”. “Vremya MN” notes, “Earlier the right preferred to talk about the inadmissibility of a bureaucratic revenge. They have started to talk about their dissatisfaction with the native capitalist system only now that the NDR has refused to join their bloc.” The newspaper concludes that the vote on December 19 will show whether the right-winged will be successful in proving that the bureaucratic capitalism has been built in Russia without their participation.

Meanwhile, members of the Primakov-Luzhkov bloc Fatherland-All Russia have perceived the attacks of the right-winged against “bureaucratic capitalists” as offensive to their party. To all appearances, it is these attacks that caused the sharp rebuff addressed to the liberals made by Alexander Tsipko, one of the ideologists of the Luzhkov movement.

Tsipko has said about the right-winged in the weekly Rossiya belonging to the group of media patronized by the Moscow government, “These people cannot be entrusted with anything serious. They are unable to realize that Russia has turned its back on the liberals who are actually the violators… They are nothing as personalities, moreover, they cause annoyance.” In the opinion of Tsipko, the very term “the right” does not possess any meaning in Russia: “In Russia all those who don’t want to return to Soviet socialism are called ‘the right'”. Consequently, the slackening of the position of the right-winged movement, in the opinion of the Fatherland’s ideologist, can benefit Yury Luzhkov and his allies: “From the very beginning those who have something to lose, who seek protection of their property and security, staked their hopes on Luzhkov. The matter concerns that part of Russian people that has adapted not only to market conditions but also to the current crisis post-communistic Russia.” According to Tsipko, these people, being disappointed with the abilities of the liberals, must support the bloc Fatherland-All Russia. However, Yury Luzhkov’s “patriotic program” needs amendments for this purpose: “The Fatherland leader should insist on his position of the restoration of the traditional non-communistic Russia and develop values of what is usually called ‘national capitalism'”.

In another article published in Obshchaya Gazeta Alexander Tsipko ponders on the merits and demerits of the integration of Fatherland and All Russia and indicates the hazard of Luzhkov’s losing “his ideological individuality”. This danger is even more real taking into consideration the fact that Primakov’s electorate “is situated somewhat leftward from the center, these are people who still expect much from the state”, unlike Luzhkovites who are able to take care of themselves, as Tsipko persistently stresses. As a result, the position of “constructive anti-communism” may be lost or even taken over by the Kremlin. But the main danger, according to ideologists of the Luzhkov bloc is that the society may perceive “the centrist coalition’s fighting the Kremlin as a fight between former and current ‘Yeltsinites’, as a fight between two detachments of one and the same Kremlin team'”.

These apprehensions seem to have some ground. Publishing the report on the integration conference of Fatherland-All Russia, Segodnya entitled the article: “Guests of the Conference Are Shown the Party of Power ’99”. The organization of the conference, the published structure of the bloc after introducing some necessary amendments (chiefly concerning the liquidation of the ‘domination of Muscovites’), and the unanimity with which the final list of 270 candidates was adopted became the “trade mark” of the new party of power. However, as the newspaper stresses, “but for the mighty figure of the former prime minister, it would be far from simple for Luzhkov’s centrists, Shaimiev’s federalists, Agrarians, and fragments of Titov’s Voice of Russia to come to an agreement. Primakov has eliminated all contradictions.” Simultaneously, the former prime minister has corrected some “image mistakes of builders of the bloc” by announcing to journalists his readiness to join the Duma and adding, “And then we’ll see.”

It is noteworthy that since Primakov broke his long and mysterious silence the media has begun to pay much less attention to him. Only Nezavisimaya Gazeta sticks to its old affection: it has analyzed the reasons for the regional elite’s liking for Primakov and come to the discouraging conclusion that Primakov is but the least evil of the three most popular candidates for president: Primakov, Luzhkov, and Zyuganov. The paper says, “The regional elite clings to Primakov, who scares senators by restoration of the vertical of the executive branch, because he is the only person who is able to prevent the post-Yeltsin anarchy or the Communists’ coming to power… Unlike the incomprehensible Zyuganov and the power-thirsty Luzhkov, the regional elite does not suspect Primakov of subtlety.” Besides, Primakov does not have a team of his own, and therefore he is harmless. “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” derisively notes, “It is only Luzhkov’s propagandists that believe that Luzhkov has managed to catch two bears at a time: Primakov and senators. In reality, 90% of regional leaders who have joined or are going to join Fatherland-All Russia are ready to be with Luzhkov only in the case that Primakov will always have the final say.”

But on the whole, as has been already said, media’s burning interest in Primakov has died down. Naturally, central media are with more energy discussing professional and human qualities of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well as his political prospects. However, according to a poll of the Russian Public Relation Studies Center, referred to by the paper Izvestia, approximately a half of Russian citizens do not differentiate between the former prime minister and the current one so far. The article is entitled: “Putin and Stepashin: Find Ten Differences” (an allusion to popular baby puzzles – translator’s note). “Izvestia” has found only two of them. First, Putin originates from the KGB. “Russian citizens’ attitude to the Soviet past varies, but people’s attitude to that KGB is still negative and suspicious.” The second difference is that Putin “has a piercing eye and looks of a spy”. As a matter of fact, the second difference is a consequence of the first one.

At the same time, as Co-Director of the Niccolo M Political Consulting Center Yekaterina Yegorova has announced to Literaturnaya Gazeta, “such a character with cold eyes suits the image that is attractive for the female electorate, although not in all parameters.” Niccolo M image-makers do not consider Putin hopeless. “Today such composed and not scandalous figures as Putin are also in demand. People who constantly appear in public with scandalous announcements and ostentatious actions are not needed now.” Putin’s chances to gain voters’ affection are large, provided “he works much on himself”.

And the work has apparently begun. According to Izvestia, Putin took a “considerable step towards a new image” last week, when he came to Dagestan, to the zone of combats, instead of his planned trip to Astrakhan, where he was to take part in the conference of prime ministers of the CIS countries. “If all operations against the terrorists are successful, this will be a good contribution to the prime minister’s weight. He will be referred to as ‘he who defeated Wahhabis’. People will long remember this.”

Another PR achievement of the prime minister’s was gained one day before the rush to Dagestan. Putin met with heads of a number of central media, and as a result of his interference a number of “fire scandals” that caused the closing of some newspapers were eliminated. Izvestia notes that the reputation of a savior of the freedom of speech is also precious on the eve of elections. “The latest actions may be regarded as the first steps towards creation of the prime minister’s, or even president’s image.” The paper admits that these steps are very literate and useful for upgrading the rating.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, referring to the information allegedly received from Media Minister Mikhail Lesin, a member of the “president’s closest circle”, says that Putin’s electoral campaign will be held under the slogan “Aren’t tired of them?” (implying elderly politicians with a burden or many years of work at high state positions that cannot boast of good health, such as Chernomyrdin, Primakov, etc.). According to Lesin, “Putin’s famous toughness and resoluteness, which is regarded by practically all officials of the Presidential Administration with admiration”, is to be the political shield behind which Boris Yeltsin will hide himself and govern the country until the 2000 election.

Simultaneously, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Administration is pondering on a new list of possible successors. According to rumors, one of the members of this list is former Tax Minister Georgy Boos, head of the electoral headquarters of Fatherland. “According to Lesin, Boos is a strong figure and may become a uniting link under certain circumstances.”

The statement that the time of surprises is only beginning is proven by the rumors about Boris Berezovsky, a specialist in undercover technologies. The media have vaguely mentioned his attempts to create a new electoral bloc with a strange name “Muzhiki” (the Russian colloquial for “men”, “country men”). According to Segodnya, Alexander Lebed, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Aman Tuleev, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, Alexander Rutskoi, and Eduard Rossel were to join the bloc. The bloc was to be based on the regional network of the NDR and the structure of the Russian People’s Republican Party and the movement Honor and Motherland. “Segodnya” asserts that the attempt to create the bloc has been a failure. Tuleev is included in the bloc of the left, Lebed is involved with the problems of the Krasnoyarsk Territory, and Eduard Rossel is involved with the regional election. However, Berezovsky will hardly stop at that. Rossel may well return to this idea after the regional election is over. As for Lebed, “the charismatic general does not need the former party of power, but he may start something new with the money of the old and reliable sponsor.”

According to the weekly Moskovskie Novosti, the reanimation of the old method of party building is accounted for by “too much attention to him displayed by law enforcement agencies of Russia and Switzerland”. To be on the safe side Berezovsky needs not only the parliamentary immunity but also a large number of adherents in the Duma that will not let prosecutors harrow their oligarch”.

Novaya Gazeta says about one more intrigue related to the creation of the bloc “Muzhiki”. The matter concerns attraction of Yaroslavl Governor Anatoly Lisitsin to the bloc. According to rumors, Lisitsin gave his assent in exchange for the governmental decision to allot the region money for construction of sport facilities for the 2000 hockey championship that will be held in Yaroslavl. According to the paper, this decision was lobbied by Berezovsky.

All these unbelievable stories that can hardly be proven indicate that Berezovsky’s rating for the press as a newsmaker and a political manipulator remains on the same high level. Consequently, the endless Berezovsky Saga is to be continued in the light of the upcoming elections.