- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

MOSCOW Dismayed reformers vowed on the weekend to continue their boycott of the lower house of parliament, or State Duma, denouncing a deal between the Communists and the party most loyal to acting President Vladimir Putin as a "shameless sellout."
They also said last week's Kremlin-engineered deal that left a Communist as Duma speaker might prompt an electoral alliance between the only two credible Putin rivals for the March 26 presidential election.
Mr. Putin has generally avoided comment on the deal, which left Gennady Seleznyov as speaker and split the top committee chairmanships between the Communists and the pro-Kremlin Unity party.
In his first public statement yesterday, the acting president maintained he had not tried to influence the parties making the deal. "I do not think it is a crisis," he said on Russia's RTR television. "There is nothing dramatic in this."
But behind the scenes Mr. Putin has been negotiating to head off any resulting electoral alliance between the center-left Fatherland-All Russia bloc of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and the social democratic Yabloko party. Among others, he met on the weekend with former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, now a deputy allied to Yabloko.
Yabloko's leader, economist Grigory Yavlinsky, has already announced he will challenge Mr. Putin for president.
Mr. Primakov had until the weekend seemed reluctant to take on Mr. Putin, the odds-on favorite to win the March election. But that may change, especially if the reform-minded Union of Right Wing Forces now withdraws its support from the acting president.
Kremlin sources say that in his meeting with Mr. Stepashin, Mr. Putin emphasized that the deal with the Communists would not halt economic reform but was forged only to provide the Kremlin with substantial tactical control of the lower house.
Unity's leader in the Duma, Boris Gryzlov, has publicly pressed that message too. "The interests of Unity and Communists coincided," Mr. Gryzlov told Interfax news service. "There is no long-term alliance with the Communists."
Apart from giving Mr. Putin majority control in the Duma, the deal had two other aims, say Kremlin sources.
Mr. Putin was determined to deny his archenemy Mr. Primakov the speakership, a position he could have used either as a platform for an election effort or later to boost his political influence during a Putin presidency.
Also, the Kremlin wanted to end any chance of the Communists, the largest party in the Duma, backing Mr. Primakov for president. Until last week, Mr. Primakov and the Communists had been holding intense discussions about Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov ending his presidential run and supporting Mr. Primakov.
The Kremlin seems surprised, however, to find that as a result of the deal it has three former prime ministers Mr. Primakov, Mr. Stepashin and the youthful Union of Right Wing Forces leader Sergei Kiriyenko ranged against Mr. Putin.
One puzzling aspect of the deal is why the Union, which has been staunch in its support of Mr. Putin, was left out in the cold. A handful of committee posts would probably have bought its compliance and persuaded their leader to remain in the government fold.
One theory circulating here is that Boris Berezovsky, the shady tycoon and Kremlin insider, wanted them excluded.
Mr. Berezovsky, who is credited with having dreamed up the hastily assembled Unity bloc to undermine Mr. Primakov's party, may see Mr. Kiriyenko and his backer, reformer Anatoly Chubais, as rivals for power within the Kremlin.
Mr. Kiriyenko certainly believes this, which would suggest that Mr. Berezovsky remains a powerful force within Mr. Putin's Kremlin. That could be bad news for serious economic reform and for an opening of the economy to real competition.
The entire deal with the Communists has exposed Mr. Putin to charges that he represents a "false center" and that he is ready to engage in the kind of back-room deals that undermined reform in the past.
"I want to see how this alliance votes on START II," the treaty to reduce strategic arms, said Mr. Kiriyenko. "I want to see how this alliance votes on tax laws. I want to see how it votes on property issues."
Both the Union of Right Wing Forces and Yabloko remain defiant about the Duma boycott despite the Kremlin's weekend efforts to break it up.
"Our position regarding the boycott of sessions remains the same," said the Union's Boris Nemtsov.
"Everything remains the same there are no changes in our position. We are awaiting proposals from the so-called 'big factions,' " said Yabloko's Mr. Yavlinsky.
The three boycotting parties, representing about one-third of the seats in the chamber, are conferring daily but remain divided on numerous issues and have spoken only informally about whether to nominate a common presidential candidate.
If they can agree on a single candidate, Mr. Putin would remain the clear favorite but would have a fight on his hands.

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