The central figure of the election campaign in the past several days became the Russian prime minister. Nezavisimaya Gazeta explains Vladimir Putin’s statement that he is ready to run for president in 2000 by the recent attacks of the prime minister’s opponents on the Kremlin. In response to the growth of Putin’s rating, the paper states, his rivals started to bombard him with accusations of blood-thirstiness, extermination of civilians in Chechnya under the pretext of a struggle against terrorism, Napoleonic ambitions, an unwillingness to solve economic problems, and even the organization of the explosions of apartment blocks in Moscow. After Yeltsin’s return from vacation, Putin’s dismissal was considered to be only a matter of time. “Apparently, in this situation the Kremlin had only two options – either to yield to the pressure, or to pursue its plans still more resolutely.” The Kremlin opted for the latter after all: it set up the prime minister’s campaign headquarters under leadership of Dmitry Kozak, Chief of the Government Administration. Putin’s new press secretary is also a remarkable person – Mikhail Kozhukhov, a journalist who participated in the Afghan war in the 1980s. Kommersant-daily asserts that “such a man cannot fail to be psychologically close to Putin, a former KGB officer.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta believes the Kremlin has determined its position, and the only thing now left for its opponents to do is follow its example: Fatherland-All Russia should choose between Luzhkov and Primakov, Yabloko between Yavlinsky and Stepashin, and the Communists between Zyuganov and Seleznev.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta believes that Putin’s statement was a sign of a new stage of the election campaign: “At the time of Putin’s statement, the presidential campaign superimposed onto the parliamentary campaign in Russia, and this superimposition is sure to worsen the already-complex internal political processes in this country and its relations with the world.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s constant opponent, Segodnya, perceives the new development in an absolutely different way. In its opinion, Putin is certainly ready to become Yeltsin’s successor. However, the Kremlin has not yet made a final choice between the possible candidates for president: “Either it will be Putin, or Shoigu, or a third person altogether.” Segodnya has long been stating that the Kremlin is trying to use the Chechen campaign to promote two candidates at once – Putin, a hawk, and Shoigu, a dove – in order to use them according to circumstances later on. “Either the former or the latter may be sacrificed, depending on which of them gains the highest electoral rating as a result of this action.” There is nothing new in such a method, it is nothing other than Yeltsin’s favorite system of checks and balances, when two politicians are struggling for the Kremlin’s support and the latter is playing the role of referee. The main criterion for victory here is loyalty to the Kremlin.

Indeed, the Chechen operation has every chance of becoming a drawn-out war, and such a development may affect the prime minister’s rating in the most negative way. And that is when Shoigu enters the picture. On the other hand, the upcoming summit in Istanbul may become “the president’s last labor” for Putin. And even if Putin is criticized in Istanbul, this will only improve the prime minister’s image within Russia, “If the ‘IMF swindlers’ and NATO do not love him, then he must be a really good lad.”

In general, Segodnya asserts, Putin’s task is clearly outlined: to be “a scarecrow for Primakov and Luzhkov, and at the same time the protector of the president’s inner circle,” to wage war, quarrel with the West, and “personify state power in the eyes of terrified citizens.” Izvestia notes pathetically that Putin’s well-known phrase, “I never go back on my word”, became a reply to “150 million Russian citizens who, for the first time in the 15 months since August 17, 1998 and six months prior to the presidential election, have suddenly seen state power being held by a man who promises realistic things, fulfills his promises, and accepts full responsibility for the consequences.” The “Iron Putin”, according to the paper’s description, is primarily “a man of action”.

Obshchaya Gazeta investigates the reasons for the incredible growth of the prime minister’s approval rating. The paper believes that this process cannot be explained merely by Putin’s resolute actions in Chechnya, “Neither Yevgeny Primakov nor Sergei Stepashin exploited the Chechen theme during their terms as prime minister, but their ratings grew as speedily as that of Putin.”

The paper believes that prime-ministerial ratings are not so much an appraisal of their personal qualities, or the performance of their cabinets, as “an indicator of society’s yearning for efficient and competent authorities.”

In addition, according to the paper’s observations, the August 1998 crisis considerably reduced the level of social expectations and, paradoxical as it may sound, weakened the population’s protest response. “In other words, it is becoming easier and easier to please the people.” Therefore, the “Putin phenomenon” is merely a result of the “post-August expectations of society”.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta likewise draws its readers’ attention to the high level of those expectations. The paper reports that during Putin’s visit to the Far East young people welcomed him “like a pop star – it has been a long time since a politician got such a warm reception in Russia.” From the viewpoint of the pro-government paper, there is no talk about social apathy. On the contrary, the public’s political activity is increasing: according to an opinion poll, 62% of respondents will vote in the parliamentary election and 74% in the presidential election. Furthermore, the paper states that the number of optimists is growing in Russia: in October, for instance, there were 4% more optimists than in April, namely 28%. “On the other hand, pessimists still prevail, they total 34%. However, what is important here is the general trend.”

The paper believes that society has started to overcome the shock caused by the events of August 1998, and that Putin has contributed much to this process. Now, Rossiyskaya Gazeta states, it is actually fairly unimportant whether Putin will manage to retain his post of prime minister. “The people will not let him leave the political arena now, it is too late.”

The growth of Putin’s rating and his resolute statement about readiness to run in the presidential election forced even his opponents to revise their opinion of him. Vedomosti reports that at a meeting with voters, Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov stated that he has nothing whatsoever against Putin: “His firmness of purpose and his insistence inspire respect for him… With God’s help he will achieve his goals.” The paper reminds its readers that only a few days ago, on November 5, Luzhkov said absolutely different words about the prime minister in an interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets. He emphasized that Putin makes “a strange impression” on him, that he is too closely related to Boris Berezovsky, and that the Moscow City Administration disapproves of the actions of federal forces in Chechnya. In the paper’s opinion, this radical alteration of Luzhkov’s position is connected both with the growth of Putin’s rating and the fall of his own.

As a result, Primakov, Luzhkov’s partner in Fatherland-All Russia, may well end up losing. Vremya MN believes that he cannot compete with the prime minister.

According to Obshchaya Gazeta, the Kremlin’s plan to neutralize Luzhkov with the help of ORT and other media controlled by the president’s inner circle is approaching its end. The mayor of Moscow is already as good as neutralized, and ready to play into the hands of the Presidential Administration for the sake of his own future at the head of the Moscow City Administration. The time has come to neutralize Primakov. The paper states that the Kremlin has formed a special “creative commission” for the purpose of working out a plan to discredit the former prime minister. The commission is allegedly headed by Gleb Pavlovsky, Chairman of the Effective Policy Foundation. He is aided by Deputy Chairwoman of the Presidential Administration, Dzhakhan Pollyeva; the commission’s work is supervised by Yeltsin’s advisor Valentin Yumashev. The matter concerns the preparation of materials that would picture Primakov as “a typical servant of the Soviet regime, a fighter against Zionism and international imperialism.”

Interfax-vremya daily believes that an electoral alliance between Putin and Primakov, the two most popular Russian politicians, is fairly possible. Furthermore, the paper states, the results of the latest opinion polls show that voters would like to see both politicians in power simultaneously. Although Primakov’s rating has recently been decreasing, campaign strategists assert that the matter concerns only his virtual rating, not the real one. The point is, on the eve of the election Primakov somewhat spoiled his reputation by making friends with Luzhkov, the Kremlin’s enemy. Therefore, currently Primakov is deliberately trying to remain in the shade in order to avoid a flow of denunciations. However, these tactics will hardly do him any good, and they are absolutely ruinous for his rating.

The media reacted aggressively to the so-called peace initiatives of Grigory Yavlinsky. Nezavisimaya Gazeta is certain that the main goal of the Yabloko leader is not a peace settlement for the Chechen crisis, but simply the intention to draw attention to himself before the elections by means of “an effective and, what is most important, free populist action”. Another goal of Yavlinsky, in the paper’s opinion, is to “demonstrate his loyalty to his Western partners. Yabloko is also interested in weakening Putin’s authority in the eyes of the Russian people, gained by the prime minister’s resolute actions in the North Caucasus.”

Izvestia also expressed a rather cynical opinion of Yabloko’s initiatives. The paper states that “either Yavlinsky has a romantic perception of the state of affairs in Chechnya, or he is fully aware of the real situation but deliberately disregards this knowledge for his own purposes.” Izvestia believes that a much more sober approach to the problem is demonstrated by Yavlinsky’s partner Stepashin, who thinks that negotiations with the Chechen authorities will become possible “only after Maskhadov announces his readiness to fight terrorism side by side with Moscow.”

Apart from that, Stepashin stresses that “until this decision is made (i.e. until Maskhadov makes the relevant statement), there must be no pauses in the counter-terrorist operation.” The paper says that this statement of Stepashin may serve as evidence of a split between the leaders of Yabloko.

Perhaps the harshest appraisal of Yavlinsky’s initiatives was voiced by Anatoly Chubais in an interview with Izvestia: “What is currently going on in Chechnya is a revival of the Russian army. The people’s confidence in the army is being restored, and any politician who thinks and speaks otherwise cannot be called a Russian politician. The only name for such a politician is a traitor.”

On the other hand, apparently the squall of mutual accusations has not yet reached its highest pitch. And although Primakov is already being accused of having recently discussed with the German authorities the possibility of joint management of the Kaliningrad Region if he wins the presidential election, and Unity leader Sergei Shoigu is accused of having misappropriated $4.5 million in 1998, which fact allegedly served the reason for Shoigu’s forced agreement to run in the parliamentary election, we should not forget that the official start of the election campaign is still to come. Perhaps it is appropriate to assume now, one month prior to the parliamentary election, that the most interesting part of the election campaign is just beginning.