Without doubt, the central electoral topic of the past several years became the creation of a new gubernatorial bloc, which was officially named Unity after all. The first articles on the subject called the bloc “Medved” (Bear) (as headlined in Vremya MN: “Medved is ready for service”). And as for the number of the bloc’s unofficial names, it has been unusually large from the very beginning. According to Kommersant-daily, in political circles the bloc is known by the names of “the new party of power”, “Berezovsky’s party”, and even “39 parrots” (after the number of governors who signed the initial document stating their unwillingness to “watch the humiliation of the country and its people” during the electoral campaign).

Segodnya, in turn, called the new association “Berezovsky’s menagerie” and stated that the governors are being lured into the new bloc by deceit: according to the paper, when protesting against indecent methods of electoral agitation, the majority of governors allegedly did not suspect that by doing this they would become participants in a new political association. The paper is of the opinion that, as usual, this new electoral initiative is the brainchild of Berezovsky, and that the manner of actions of the bloc’s founders was forced: “Indeed, it is unlikely that any self-respecting governor would negotiate with the ‘demon’ (Berezovsky) before society’s very eyes, especially regarding entering a certain pro-Kremlin bloc. It is only with help of lies that governors can be lured into such a menagerie.” That much was done, in the paper’s opinion.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, on the contrary, stated with satisfaction that the bloc in question is the second, this time successful attempt “of those politicians who gather around President Yeltsin to seriously influence the results of the upcoming parliamentary election.” The paper is of the opinion that the first such attempt, which was made during Sergei Stepashin’s term in office, failed owing to “the noticeable disregard of governors of the bloc’s founders”, who, as is now already obvious, are actually the decisive political force in the current electoral campaign. In particular, the bloc’s founders attempted to “gather governors under the leadership of leaders of political parties”, which the influential regional leaders perceived as an insult. Now this mistake has been corrected: “In this second attempt, which is manifested by the creation of the Unity bloc, much more attention is being paid to the governors. Nobody is trying to make them comply with any requirements anymore.”

Kommersant-daily was even more pragmatic when expressing its attitude towards the new bloc: “Owing to the dire time of troubles on the eve of the election, the Kremlin decided to avail itself of the simplest plan for building a bloc – namely, the bureaucratic one. The president’s team found and scraped together governors who can be called loyal (although with great reservations), due to their ultimate economic dependence on the powers that be.”

Kommersant-daily believes that it is “absolutely senseless” to talk about any ideology of the new bloc: ideology is not the point of its creation. The main task of the bloc is “to prevent a global-scale redistribution of power after the election” by stealing the maximum possible number of supporters from Fatherland-All Russia.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta thinks that another aim of the creation of the new bloc is for regional leaders “to support in their own regions the possible nominee for president.” In this connection the paper pays a compliment to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has “successfully solved the two major tasks of his first several months in office: namely, he freed Dagestan from Chechen guerrillas in a short period of time, and, on the eve of the election, gathered together governors who are more or less loyal to the Kremlin.”

Novye Izvestia published a statement by Chukotka Governor Alexander Nazarov, the coordinator of Unity, under the headline “The New Senatorial Bloc May Alter the Layout of Political Forces in Russia”. Nazarov emphasizes that, as should have been expected, the governors themselves are not expressing a desire for deputy mandates: “We will not run for the Duma ourselves – we do not need deputy seats, but we will do our best to ensure that these seats are won by people who support our regional programs, so that these people can deal with the problems of our territories throughout the four years of their term, instead of engaging in idle talk and trying to solve their personal problems.”

Thus, the governors have a goal of their own, and this goal differs from those of the Kremlin administration. The governors’ idea is to promote “their people” to the Duma in majority districts. All means to achieve this goal are acceptable. It has long been noticed that regional leaders try not to “put all their eggs in one basket”, and from this point of view the creation of the new bloc is well timed. Especially if we take into consideration Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s assertion that this bloc is being formed under the aegis of the government. This very factor – the government’s support – was appreciated most of all by the governors. Vremya MN stressed that “many governors would like this idea (of joining the new bloc) to be voiced by Putin, and they also do not want any signs of Berezovsky anywhere near Unity.” Berezovsky, in turn, stated that, “unfortunately”, he has nothing to do with the creation of the new bloc: “Unfortunately, because the will of the overwhelming majority of governors means very much to me.” Upon making this statement, Berezovsky went abroad – reportedly for rehabilitation after a serious case of hepatitis.

Viktor Chernomyrdin, the leader of the Our Home is Russia (NDR) movement, on basis of which the structures of the new bloc are expected to be formed, commented on the current situation in his favorite stunning manner: “As soon as something positive is intended, somebody always has to drag Berezovsky into the business in order to ruin the entire affair” (a quotation from Kommersant-daily). Meanwhile, the press states that the absence of any associations with Berezovsky was one of the conditions on which Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu agreed to become the leader of the new bloc. Shoigu is an absolutely new player in the Russian political arena. The press – both supporters and opponents of the new bloc – was practically unanimous in stressing Shoigu’s high personal authority, his incontestable professional merits, and his absence of political ambitions. On the other hand, not everybody agrees with the latter. For instance, Moskovsky Komsomolets, the paper which supports Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov (and, as has already been mentioned, the new bloc is being formed in contrast to Luzhkov’s Fatherland-All Russia movement), suspects Shoigu of certain political ambitions: “According to Shoigu, All Russia, which is currently part of Luzhkov’s coalition, owes its creation to nobody but him.” According to the paper, “the indefatigable rescuer”, among other people, contributed to the creation of the new bloc.

Vedomosti maintains that the “rescue minister” has long been engaged in politics, “but it can be called semi-public politics”. The paper reminds its readers that Shoigu was at one time rated No. 130 on the federal electoral list of the Choice of Russia movement. After that he joined NDR and was even a member of the movement’s Council for some time. In 1993 Shoigu was rated No. 70 on the list of Russian political leaders which Nezavisimaya Gazeta regularly compiles. “In general, Shoigu always appears to assume bottom positions on various lists,” Vedomosti remarks, “That is simply because his last name begins with the letter Sh, and if a list is not compiled in alphabetical order he skillfully keeps in the background.” Nevertheless, the paper concludes, the emergency situations minister participated in the process of settling the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, in the restoration of relations between Russia and Libya, and – only recently – “in the much politicized process of providing humanitarian aid to the Kosovo Serbs.” Therefore, the paper refuses to believe in Shoigu’s political naivete. “In addition, Shoigu has struggled so violently to attain promotion in military ranks for himself and his subordinates throughout his career in the government that we simply cannot believe that he has no political ambitions at all.”

Now Shoigu’s “dormant ambitions” have brilliant prospects: given the support of the governors, with whom he has long had good relations (Vremya MN reminded its readers that each regional leader is simultaneously the chief of the regional civilian defense headquarters and, owing to this fact, has firm contacts with the Emergency Situations Ministry), the leader of the Unity bloc might become not only the leader of the “faction of the Russian regions” in the next Duma but also a promising candidate for president. Alexander Nazarov, the coordinator of the Unity, spoke about this possibility in his first interview to ITAR-TASS.

Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration Vladislav Surkov spoke in an interview to Obshchaya Gazeta about the Kremlin’s intention “to add new names to the pack of cards” in order not to “play presidential solitaire by picking the same politicians over and over again.” On the other hand, the interview in question began with a conversation concerning Prime Minister Putin. In answer to the question of why he had a portrait of Putin on his desk, even though he serves in the Presidential Administration, Surkov said enigmatically, “Very soon everybody will have a portrait of this man on his desk.” Nevertheless, Voloshin’s deputy categorically denied the rumors that an electoral staff for promoting Putin for president has been formed in the Kremlin. We should say that the prime minister’s electoral chances are currently being actively discussed by the press. Argumenty i Fakty weekly, for instance, assures its readers that the new directorate of the Transneft oil company has promised Putin that it will finance his electoral campaign “by no less than $15 million”. The only problem is that Putin would actually need $150 million “assuming that one dollar is spent on promoting the prime minister for all 150 million Russian citizens.” Argumenty i Fakty states that the missing sum “is to be donated by other companies controlled by the state”.

The press also continues to discuss the prime minister’s specific manner of behavior. Vek weekly states, “Putin has been chairing the government for over one month now. Meanwhile, the general public still knows nearly nothing about him – except, perhaps, for the nickname ‘the power behind the throne’ which he acquired while still living and working in St. Petersburg.” On the other hand, the paper is of the opinion (and this is not the first time this opinion has been expressed in the Russian press) that such behavior corresponds excellently to the current somber times: “Given the fact that apartment blocs are being blasted and terrorists are one the offensive, that it would be a good idea to place somebody like Putin – with his grasping stare – on every crossroads, the presence of exactly this person on the main front line of the country pacifies the public. Any eminent politician who is preoccupied by his accordions, speeches, and electoral ambitions might overlook something, but with Putin this will never be the case.” The paper believes that in difficult times “the hope for the special services’ omnipotence is the last to die in our citizens’ breasts. And it is exactly this omnipotence that lurks behind the prime minister’s back.” As for the other qualities required of the would-be president, the paper is certain that the prime minister “still has time to perfect his image and finish off this ‘cover’… Perhaps at a certain point he will even consider it expedient to recite a poem or conduct an orchestra, although at this juncture such moves appear to be absolutely unrealistic.”

In an extensive interview to Vremya MN, Putin admitted that he has always been an official – first a military one, then a civilian one. However, in the future he does not rule out other possibilities: “I will think about my political future if I see that I am solving my tasks successfully enough, if I am certain in the depth of my heart that I have done everything in the right way and will be able to do so in the future.” As for the shortcomings of his image, Putin does not care much about them: “I think that the results of concrete work are much more important. You may have noticed the fact that I try not to parade my performance.” Putin’s reply to the question about the president’s possible resignation is of interest, since it resembled a rebuff: “I have no time for speculative explanations of what is going on… However, I am absolutely certain about one thing: the president does not intend to resign. You need to talk with him for two or three hours to realize that. You will understand then that he is a man with a firm character which will not allow him to deviate from the principles he has followed for so long.” According to Putin, one of those principles is Yeltsin’s adherence to the democratic procedure of handing over power. What’s more, another person in the know about the president’s character – Viktor Chernomyrdin – expressed his opinion of the same topic in a still more unambiguous manner: “Instead of bidding Yeltsin a pre-term farewell, you should pray that he resigns on time.” (A quotation from Moskovsky Komsomolets).

Literaturnaya Gazeta assumes in an article headlined “Yeltsin is Being ‘Dismissed’ Again” that the rumors about the upcoming voluntary resignation of the president “are most likely the result of a purposeful information leak.” There may be two aims of this leak, according to the paper, one being to help reveal the inner “fifth column”. The trick was a success: “certain people have already gotten caught in the trap – for instance, Stroev and other members of the Federation Council, in all 61 people…” The other aim is to activate the president’s inner circle, “to make them run faster. For if the president resigns, it will be the end of them.”

However, judging from Surkov’s aforementioned interview, it does not appear that such a move – if any – could possibly have been organized without the inner circle’s knowledge. Surkov speaks rather dauntlessly on the subject of the president’s pre-term resignation: “Outsiders are telling us what we have allegedly conceived… There is no plan for the president’s pre-term resignation… Who cares what we discuss at our working meetings? At such meetings various assumptions may be voiced, but that does not at all mean that these assumptions are considered to be grounds for further actions.” Therefore, most likely Literaturnaya Gazeta is mistaken in its suppositions: such a club of amateur players of “the game of fine pearls” can hardly be forced to “run faster”.

In the same interview to Obshchaya Gazeta, Surkov expressed anxiety concerning the ever-worsening relations between the Kremlin and the leaders of Fatherland-All Russia, or, to be more exact, the Moscow city administration: “I am not speaking about all members of this bloc. For instance, Primakov’s position is well considered… However, to my deep regret, Yury Luzhkov and several other people are constantly trying to accuse us the Presidential Administration of something.”

The theme of the Kremlin’s regrets as regards Primakov’s merger with the uncontrollable Luzhkov is still being discussed in the press. The journal Expert states: “There is an opinion, in accordance with which Yeltsin and his team still believe that the Kremlin will promote no one for president besides Primakov.” From the Kremlin’s point of view, Primakov meets two major requirements: he still has the best chances of winning the presidential election and, especially importantly, he is capable of providing for the security of Yeltsin and the first family after the election. “However, fulfilling the latter mission requires only a person who can control the situation in this country in general and in the Moscow mayor’s office in particular. On the other hand, Primakov has been the leader of Fatherland-All Russia for one month already and still has not managed to ennoble his company: the vulgar anti-Kremlin sentiments of Luzhkov and his team are not decreasing.”

Luzhkov’s latest anti-presidential escapade in Vienna (where the mayor of Moscow announced that Yeltsin “is incapable of fulfilling his duties, first of all due to his state of health” and also spoke about the “dishonorableness of state officials in the higher echelons of the Russian government”) provoked a responsive reaction by Maksim Sokolov, an Izvestia observer. First of all, Sokolov is sure that, in light of the current threat of more terrorist acts and the “declaration of elements of a state of emergency in the Russian capital” Luzhkov did not have “any municipal necessity to hurry to Vienna”. “The only reason for his journey was to advertise himself as the future president of Russia. However, instead of advertising himself in that way, would it not be wiser for Luzhkov not to advertise himself at all?” From Sokolov’s point of view, Luzhkov has demonstrated serious disrespect for the Russian Constitution, which stipulates civilized democratic procedures for handing power over from the former president to the new one. “This procedure, according to the Constitution, is to be accompanied by a set of ritual courtesies. In this connection the state’s sovereignty, honor, and dignity are equally sacred to all opponents, and any open and public involvement of foreign states in this internal ritual duel, the more so in a free-for-all in the kitchen of a communal apartment, is intolerable. Perhaps presidential hopefuls of a banana republic can stoop to such measures, but for candidates for president of a great power such behavior is unacceptable.”

Whether or not Luzhkov will try his luck to become the “ruler of a great power” is so far difficult to predict. It is even more difficult to say how successful this would-be attempt may turn out to be. Kommersant-Vlast’ weekly maintains that Luzhkov’s inner circle likewise has no unanimous opinion about him running in the presidential election. In order to increase his competitiveness in the upcoming presidential race, the mayor of Moscow has decided “to assemble a powerful new team of the presidential level to replace his acting local and semi-legal one.” For this purpose “the Kremlin exiles” – Yastrzhembsky, Kokoshin, Savostyanov, etc. – were invited to join the team. However, Luzhkov failed to found a uniform team with a new center of gravity: “Currently, the degree of dissidence in Luzhkov’s team exceeds even the Kremlin’s standards. People in the know about intrigues in the capital maintain that Luzhkov’s old confidantes – Shantsev, Tsoi, and Yevtushenkov – are fighting the newcomers to the death for access to ‘the body’ of Luzhkov.” Kommersant-Vlast’ is of the opinion that the patriotic “Muscovites” in Luzhkov’s team are afraid to let him run for president: “First of all, they have no guarantees that once Luzhkov becomes president he will drag the Moscow ‘oligarchy’ up to the federal level. Secondly, if his new team of former Kremlin officials helps Luzhkov become president in the end, it will be members of that very team, not at all the ‘old-timers’, who will be granted all the key posts in the new federal government.” Therefore, however hard it may be to believe, “activists other than Luzhkov’s ‘old guards’ periodically initiate education campaigns in the media to convince Luzhkov that he is already a perfect mayor but that he is unlikely to make a decent president, and that he would be better off if he forgot all about the presidential election,” Kommersant-Vlast’ concludes.

We should add that there are numerous exotic theories about further developments of the situation, especially in light of the upcoming presidential election. The journal Profil, for instance, quotes the opinion of Vladimir Lysenko, a well-known politician and Duma deputy, who believes that Putin’s candidacy, which, according to the results of sociological polls, the electorate has already started to get used to, will be appropriate if the situation in the North Caucasus is settled in a way favorable for Russia. “If, on the contrary, the situation escalates, panic and ethnic purges aimed against people from the Caucasus ensue in Moscow, and some people get killed in the rush, then the entire Caucasus will turn on Russia. In that case, only one person will be capable of pacifying this slaughter – General Lebed, a good friend of Maskhadov and Basaev. Lebed will come to Chechnya and settle the entire matter in no more than three days.” Profil’s anonymous interlocutor from the Presidential Administration shares this viewpoint: “The Kremlin is still staking all its hopes on Putin and providing him with the most favorable environment. But if something happens all of a sudden: a new series of terrorist acts or another invasion of Dagestan by Chechen guerrillas which is not rebuffed in the proper manner – then Lebed may be called in as the miracle worker, the savior, and the conciliator. As long as Berezovsky stays near the Kremlin, Lebed’s candidacy will inevitably be considered in certain scenarios.”

Argumenty i Fakty states that Berezovsky has new electoral ideas (apart from Lebed, the Unity bloc, etc.). Berezovsky “appears to have given up the idea of running for Parliament. Rumors have it that he is currently planning to attain an official post to supervise the Caucasus, and later to collect 1 million signatures to promote his own candidacy for president of Russia. This will provide Berezovsky with the necessary immunity, for the circle of his high-ranking friends is getting narrower and narrower.”

As they say, there is a bit of joke in every joke, and the rest is the truth. At any rate, the president’s “electoral pack of cards” is undoubtedly starting to swell up at an indecent rate, and absolutely independently of the desires of the Kremlin strategists, at that.