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In December, Russia’s Parliament will hold elections. Deprived by the constitution of any true political authority, the Duma is still important as a collective opinion-maker. In 1993-1999, it became an ongoing anti-Yeltsin show, the most prominent podium for any sharp criticism of the president. As a legislature, the Duma may be not too prominent because Russia is now being governed by presidential decrees rather than laws passed by the Parliament. But the Duma plays a key role in molding the preferences of Russia’s voters.

In June 2000, Russians are to elect a new president. For all candidates it is of crucial importance who will be in control of the Duma by that time. The endorsement of the legislature’s deputies will be extremely valuable to all participants in the presidential race. This is why the forthcoming parliamentary election is of a paramount significance, and why no serious leader can afford the luxury of ignoring it. In a sense, this election serves as a primary for the presidential contest.

Russian politics are still organized around leaders rather than political parties. This is why various political groups in Russia are desperately trying to win the favors of potential presidential candidates. To get the right presidential candidate on your party’s ticket could mean millions of votes in December. It is important for all presidential candidates to get associated with the right political group — one that will be strong enough to lobby his candidacy between now and next June.

Unexpectedly, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has become the most popular choice among party leaders. Lacking charisma and far from being a populist, he is not commanding the allegiance of rank-and-file voters, but he is exceedingly popular with the political and financial establishment. Tired of risky experiments and the insatiable ambitions of Yeltsin’s younger appointees, the establishment prefers Primakov, an experienced, emotionally stable Soviet-style bureaucrat.

Virtually all political parties have been seeking Primakov’s favors. The former prime minister is a mild Social Democrat in his political tastes, and therefore potentially open to dialogue with both the left and right. Disliking extremes, Primakov ended up with Fatherland (Otechestvo) — a broad coalition of centrists led by the mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov, a strong presidential candidate himself. There is not a chance that Primakov and Luzhkov will escape confrontation in the future, but for now they are allies. Fatherland now has the best prospects for winning the parliamentary election in December. Who will eventually benefit from this — Luzhkov or Primakov — remains to be seen. But in any case, a Duma controlled by pragmatic centrists would be the best outcome in the December election.

Sergei Stepashin, another former prime minister forced by Yeltsin into retirement only three weeks ago, has chosen the Yabloko party, a Westernized liberal group steadily commanding the sympathies of 7-8 percent of voters. Its leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, desperately wants to become president himself, but he needs Stepashin on his side in December to represent experience and state wisdom. Of course, Stepashin, who spent only three months in office before he was sacked by Yeltsin, can boast only second-rate state wisdom. Luckily, however, Yabloko is a second-rate party.

The third former prime minister, Sergei Kirienko, has joined a fragile liberal coalition with the pretentious name Right Cause. Promoting themselves as proponents of a free-market economy, the leaders of Right Cause have obviously made the wrong choice: Kirienko is firmly associated with the financial disaster of 1998 — in other words, with the sour fruits of the free-market reform. Right Cause will hardly get 5 percent of votes — and this means that it will not be represented in the Duma at all, as 5 percent of votes is the threshold demanded by law for any party to send its representatives to the Parliament.

One more former prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, head of government in 1992-1998, is proudly managing his own party, Our Home Is Russia. He perceives himself to be a leader too great to join somebody else’s campaign and thinks he does not need allies as a party leader. Such a haughty stance might cause his party dearly, for the position of No. 1 pragmatist has been stolen from Chernomyrdin by Primakov. As a result, Our Home Is Russia also faces the unpleasant perspective of not breaking the 5 percent barrier.

The Communists do not have allies, but this has not been their choice. Several leftwing parties have treacherously joined the ranks of Primakov/Luzhkov’s Fatherland. Even in Russia the hammer and sickle are not the best symbols and not too many voters would identify economic growth with Marxism. Communists used to command 30-35 percent of the vote. This time they will be lucky if they get 25.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal-Democratic Party has only one leader — Zhirinovsky himself. Liberal Democrats might be mock fascists, but they adhere to iron discipline. Instead of making friends with any of the former prime ministers, Zhirinovsky is making feverish speeches, suggesting polygamy for Russian males. He is also flirting with Russian gay people, visiting gay night clubs and making progay statements. Zhirinovsky hopes to sweep the gay vote, both from the open and from the closet, but this hope might be too far-fetched as his reputation for being a buffoon is too scary.

Only one presidential candidate has kept away from the campaign so far — the governor of Krasnoyarsk, Gen. Alexander Lebed. As always, he wants to be distinctly different from others. This might prove to be a wise policy, indeed. The parliamentary election will inevitably bring to the limelight a lot of dirty laundry, and voters may get disappointed in people like Primakov and Stepashin even before the presidential race officially starts.

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