Yevgeny Primakov, who was once appointed prime minister because no one considered him a presidential candidate for the year 2000, has become Russia's hottest political commodity in the early run-up to December's parliamentary elections and next year's presidential vote.
Primakov remains Russia's most popular politician almost three months after President Boris Yeltsin ousted him from the prime minister's post on the grounds that he had failed to get the economy moving. Observers noted at the time that Yeltsin was probably also reacting to Primakov's increasing popularity and independence.
Now Primakov is being avidly courted by a new electoral coalition sponsored by Moscow's powerful mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. Polls show that Primakov would lead the coalition to parliamentary victory should he choose to head it in the December balloting.
Primakov, who has spent his time out of office recovering from health problems and touring the provinces, has responded with his customary caginess. Asked the other day if he would run for the legislature, he demurred. "I have not made a decision yet," he said.
His reticence has made a potential Primakov candidacy a blank screen on which the ambitions of supporters and the fears of rivals are projected almost every day. "His true strength and potential are not in programs or in his political manifesto, but in the Primakov phenomenon," said the Moscow News.
Analysts give a variety of reasons for Primakov's appeal. He is unabashedly a Russian nationalist without the extreme aggressiveness of far-right politicians; that appeals to those who feel humiliated by Russia's sorry economic condition and decline as a world power. He is not associated with the clique of government-connected bankers and oil magnates who have prospered in recent years while most Russians saw their living standards decline.
Despite a lackluster performance as prime minister, Primakov is regarded as a steady hand--in stark contrast to the unpredictable Yeltsin. Dismissal by Yeltsin, who is widely held in low esteem, seems to be a plus. "By ousting Primakov, the Kremlin made him the most popular personality," said the Moscow magazine Profil.
But not ruling out the option has made him the center of manifold political maneuvers. Primary among them is an effort by Luzhkov to ally himself with Primakov. Luzhkov's Fatherland party has united with a group of regional governors called All Russia, and Fatherland-All Russia invited Primakov to lead its ticket in the balloting for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Eventually, the coalition wants to name a candidate for president. In preparation, Fatherland-All Russia has formed a steering council with 13 seats, of which 12 are filled. The vacancy is reserved for Primakov, Russian politicians say.
Since Luzhkov has long been regarded as a presidential hopeful himself, pundits questioned the advantage of such a move to him. The answer, they predict, is a deal in which Luzhkov would occupy a high post in a Primakov administration--either vice president in a new constitutional arrangement, or prime minister.
Luzhkov said he was ready to withdraw as a parliamentary candidate if Primakov joins Fatherland-All Russia. Primakov, noncommittal as ever, said he welcomes the creation of Fatherland-All Russia.
In any case, Luzhkov has frustrated any aspirations Yeltsin has to play kingmaker. Analysts say Yeltsin wants to promote Sergei Stepashin, who replaced Primakov as prime minister, or another ex-prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, for president.
Luzhkov backers claim that Yeltsin has unleashed tax officials and the secret police to harass Fatherland supporters, including Luzhkov's wife, whose business dealings have been under investigation, and NTV television, which supports the mayor.
Other rival parties are also wary of a Luzhkov-designed juggernaut. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist, blasted the Fatherland-All Russia alliance as a joint venture of "feudal lords-governors" who are serving as a cover for "Bolsheviks" to take power. A representative of the centrist Yabloko bloc said that Luzhkov's alliance is designed to "preserve the status quo."