- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 1999

Unity, a 3-month-old pro-Kremlin party with no clear ideology beyond its support of the war in Chechnya, now dominates Russia’s political scene, as the final votes are being counted from Sunday’s State Duma elections.

The elections, in which Unity finished just behind Russia’s Communist Party, represented a personal triumph for both President Boris Yeltsin and his hand-picked successor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin’s aggressive prosecution of the war in Chechnya, where fighting raged around the capital of Grozny even as Russians went to the polls, has made him the most popular politician in the country. Analysts said his endorsement of Unity and its vague law-and-order platform sparked the party’s late surge.

“This is a consolidation of the role of Vladimir Putin,” said Yeltsin aide Igor Shabduraslov “It is a colossal breakthrough.”

With 84 percent of the vote counted yesterday, the Communists had a slight edge with 24.2 percent of the party list vote, compared with 23.4 percent for Unity.

But candidates from Unity, combined with center-right and independent candidates, were leading in a majority of the 225 races for individual seats. Half the Duma’s 450 seats are decided on party lists and half on races in individual constituencies.

Fatherland-All Russia, a center-left party headed by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, both now foes of Mr. Yeltsin, came in a disappointing third with 12 percent of the vote.

While Russia’s embattled free-market reformers hailed Sunday’s vote, Mr. Putin and his allies in Unity still must put meat on the bones of their skeletal platform.

The prime minister, a former KGB agent with virtually no record on domestic or economic issues, has been called a centrist for backing economic reforms that were frustrated in the previous Communist-dominated Duma.

But a “centrist” on the Russian political landscape today may not move as fast as the International Monetary Fund and many Western businesses would like, and Mr. Putin has brusquely shrugged off Western concerns over the war in Chechnya and security issues.

Unity “has not answered a single question in any field put forward by the electorate, beginning with the economy, social issues, pensions, supports, taxes, and all the rest,” Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov complained in a news conference yesterday.

Mr. Putin, who plans to run for president in June, would only say the vote “marked the onset of an important stage in the development of Russia: political stabilization.”

U.S. officials praised Russia for conducting its third democratic parliamentary elections since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the face of difficult economic circumstances.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart conceded that most Russian voters appear to support Moscow’s strong actions in Chechnya.

“Obviously, the domestic political audience may view it differently than the international community does,” Mr. Lockhart said. “This is a situation where the international community is going to have to continue to make the case to the Russian government and to the Russian people about how the rest of the world sees things.”

Still, Russia’s smaller parties favoring economic liberalization were cheered by the prospect of a potential alliance with Unity. The previous Duma battled constantly with Mr. Yeltsin while blocking tax, banking, and bankruptcy reforms sought by international lenders and investors.

Sunday’s other big winner may have been the Union of Right-Wing Forces, a center-right party favoring far more rapid economic liberalization. While pre-election polls said the party, headed by former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, might not get the 5 percent needed for party representation in the Duma, the Union grabbed just under 9 percent of the vote.

A third centrist party, Yabloko, got just over 6 percent of the vote.

Reformer and Yeltsin adviser Anatoly Chubais, now with the Union of Right-Wing Forces, cautioned that Mr. Putin’s fortunes could quickly change if the war in Chechnya falters as it did in 1996.

“The whole building would shake,” he said in a television interview in Moscow yesterday. “It is clear today that the situation in Chechnya is the key to the whole political process.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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