- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 1999

A popular war in Chechnya and stumbling economic reforms at home have put anti-Western politicians in the driver’s seat as Russian voters head to the polls Sunday for the country’s first parliamentary elections since 1995.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is hoping the vote for the State Duma, the powerful lower legislative chamber, and his soaring personal popularity from the war in Chechnya will put him on course to succeed Boris Yeltsin in presidential elections next June. Reformist liberal parties, by contrast, are just hoping to hold on.
The war in Chechnya has “changed the hierarchy of public concerns,” said Igor Bunin, director of Moscow’s Center for Political Technologies. “A feeling of a common enemy has emerged. This common enemy can be found not only in Chechnya, but in the West.”
The upshot: The upstart Unity bloc, which has thrown in its lot with the hard-line Mr. Putin, is expected to challenge Russia’s Communist Party for the most seats in Sunday’s elections. Parties favoring more Western-style economic reforms such as Yabloko and the Union of Right-Wing Forces trail far behind in the polls.
Campaigning officially ends Friday for Sunday’s vote, with 27 parties and blocs competing for a total of 450 seats.
Half of the seats will go to individual candidates running in 225 constituencies stretching across 11 time zones. The remaining seats will be divided proportionally among the parties that obtain at least 5 percent of the total vote. Voters will be asked to select both an individual candidate and a party on the ballot.
The latest polls indicate that the Communist Party, under leader Gennady Zyuganov, and Unity, nominally headed by Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu but closely allied to Mr. Putin, will each take about a fifth of the vote. The main reformist factions, including Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko bloc and the Union of Right-Wing Forces headed by former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, are just hoping to clear the 5 percent hurdle in the new Duma.
Mr. Yavlinsky has been one of the few politicians in Moscow to criticize the war effort in Chechnya, and he has paid a political price for it.
The 47-year-old economist, a longtime advocate of radical free-market reforms, saw his personal popularity rating plunge to just 4 percent last month when he warned of “huge losses among our troops.”
“It’s almost impossible to oppose this with a different point of view, like the war must be ended or that the Chechens aren’t guilty,” said Alexei Levinson, an analyst at the Russian Center for Public Opinion and Market Research in Moscow.
But Mr. Putin himself has become a hostage of the war, Mr. Levinson noted. Should the campaign in Chechnya go badly, the prime minister could suffer.
The election is also expected to play a major role in shaping both Mr. Yeltsin’s personal fate and the contest to choose his successor. With personal attacks and vague political platforms the norm in the Duma campaign, much of the handicapping has focused on whether Mr. Yeltsin can protect himself and his close allies from corruption probes and whether Mr. Putin, his hand-picked successor, can elect a Duma that will not disrupt his presidential run.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Politika Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank, notes that an unfriendly Duma could press forward with corruption probes against allies of Mr. Yeltsin and could also attack Mr. Putin’s power base through votes of no confidence. The Russian constitution prevents Mr. Yeltsin from dissolving the Duma six months before a presidential election, giving deputies even greater scope for mischief.
“Obviously, to fail to take this Duma seriously would be suicide for the executive power,” Mr. Nikonov said. “For the oligarchs, all that is left is to remain in Russia and fight to the last bullet for a friendly government.”
Mr. Putin’s surge since the fighting in Chechnya began has completely upset the predictions of the summer.
The Fatherland-All Russia alliance, linking former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and a number of regional governors, has seen its support tumble as Mr. Putin’s has risen.
The alliance had risen when Mr. Primakov topped the early polls for next July’s presidential vote. As Mr. Primakov fades, “even the alliance’s official members increasingly prefer to take a passive approach,” according to Sergei Markov, director of Moscow State University’s Institute of Political Studies.
The Primakov-Luzhkov alliance has been the particular target of pro-Kremlin media attacks that have been criticized by international election observers in the run-up to the Duma vote.
Russian-U.S. relations have grown increasingly frosty in recent months, with public disputes over Chechnya, missile and defense policy, and economic aid all sharpening tensions. Recent polls appear to back up critics of the Clinton administration who say it has harmed America’s image in Russia by backing corrupt politicians and reforms associated with severe economic hardship.
A Nov. 26-29 poll found that 61 percent of Russians back a continued advance in Chechnya, compared with just 27 percent who prefer negotiations. Forty-three percent of those polled said Russia should “try to eliminate dependence on the West,” compared with 40 percent who backed closer ties.Stumbling economic reforms and a popular war in Chechnya have put anti-Western politicians in the driver’s seat as Russian voters head to the polls this Sunday.

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