In a newspaper political cartoon here, a man comes home from work and stands in the doorway, dripping slime. He says to his wife, "Dear, I'm coming back from the kompromat wars."
Kompromat is the Russian word for compromising, or scandalous, information, and the cartoon captures what already has become a nasty political campaign season. With parliamentary elections still eight weeks away and the presidential vote not due until next summer, Russian voters already feel like the cartoon character--covered with mud.
For example, a torrent of KGB-style disinformation and smear tactics has jolted Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who only a few months ago seemed to be advancing sure-footedly in his quest for the presidency. He still has a strong base in Moscow, and his party is doing well, but Luzhkov's prospects have lately been thrown into doubt. His ratings have slumped in opinion polls on presidential contenders, and he now says he might not run.
In part, Luzhkov is being eclipsed by other politicians, but he also has been caught up in a collision between a pair of Russian media magnates who want to put their stamp on the next president. For seven years, Luzhkov held sway as the Moscow city boss and was never seriously challenged politically in his own domain--or in the media. But now he is fighting in a different arena and for higher stakes, and he has a tough battle ahead.
A series of nationwide surveys by the Public Opinion Foundation shows Luzhkov's popularity plummeting. In January, 15 percent of people questioned said they would vote for him as president, but in a survey last week only 5 percent backed Luzhkov. Former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov is leading the polls with a 20 percent rating, while Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov is second with 16 percent.
Analysts say one reason for Luzhkov's nose dive is the recent ascendancy of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official whom President Boris Yeltsin appointed in August. Putin has taken a hard line against rebel forces in the breakaway southern region of Chechnya, a stance that has proved popular, and his approval ratings have leapt from zero to 14 percent.
Luzhkov also has suffered because of his alliance with Primakov in a parliamentary campaign bloc known as Fatherland-All Russia. Primakov has outshone Luzhkov, and the Moscow mayor has hinted lately that he will defer to Primakov. "Luzhkov was robbed by Primakov," said Igor Bunin, a political analyst here. "Primakov started taking some of his voters away. . . . Luzhkov had to put up with the back seat."
Many analysts think a major reason for Luzhkov's troubles is the barrage of kompromat aimed at him in recent weeks--and he's not the only target. Eight years after the collapse of Soviet rule, Russian news media have yet to develop independent roots. Instead, they have become the tools of business magnates--a group of Russian tycoons called the "oligarchs"--who lately have turned their television and newspaper properties into what Luzhkov has called "information killers and racketeers."
Russia's news media are in "a market of political money," said Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation, a Moscow consulting firm. "It is not a market that depends on the audience, on the circulation or success in selling advertising. This market depends on success in bringing pressure on those who make political decisions." The kompromat wars, he added, "are nothing but an acute form of deals in the political market with the use of the media as an instrument."
The Internet, with 4 million Russian users, is well suited to political mudslinging. Web sites pop up purveying dubious material that finds its way immediately to the mainstream press, much as in the United States. The first major site of this sort here was called Claw; it caused a sensation, and more quickly blossomed. One site mimicked Luzhkov's City Hall home page, while the inside pages were filled with disinformation and smears about the mayor.
The mudslinging, however, is just a superficial aspect of a more fundamental battle. Boris Berezovsky, the tycoon who organized Russia's most influential businessmen to help reelect Yeltsin in 1996, has not said whom he favors to be the next president, but he has vowed to block both Luzhkov and Primakov. He has had long feuds with them and has aimed his formidable media properties at both, launching almost daily fusillades of criticism, especially at Luzhkov.
Berezovsky's reach is nationwide; he controls Russia's largest television channel, ORT, and another, TV-6, in Moscow, as well as three major daily newspapers, including the recently acquired Kommersant.
On the other side is Luzhkov's camp, which includes Vladimir Gusinsky, a media mogul who established Russia's first commercial television channel, NTV, and who also owns a newspaper, a magazine and a Moscow radio station. Gusinsky, who worked closely with Berezovsky in 1996 and '97, is now at odds with him. The origins of the dispute are not clear, but the result is an outpouring of video invective.
Recently, NTV aired what it claimed were secret tape recordings of Berezovsky talking by phone with Chechen leaders. ORT fired back with a broadcast on Gusinsky's lavish mansion in Spain.
The daily slugging matches are supplemented each week by dueling Sunday television broadcasts. Yevgeny Kiselyov, anchor of the NTV program "Itogi," has tried to raise questions about Yeltsin's inner circle and the money men around Berezovsky. Sergei Dorenko, anchor for Berezovsky's ORT network, has suggested that Luzhkov is corrupt and has stashed his wealth abroad. Luzhkov recently called Berezovsky "Satan."
While many analysts believed that last year's financial crisis here would weaken the oligarchs' hold on Russian politics, they seem to have made a comeback. "The politicians have the power, and Berezovsky and Gusinsky have the influence," said analyst Mark Urnov of the Expertise Foundation.
"Berezovsky has turned into an absolutely unpopular figure in Russian public opinion," Urnov added. But despite that, he said, "Luzhkov's popularity is going to suffer strong and painful damage" from Berezovsky's onslaught. "Until recently, Luzhkov had not been a target of a massive media attack. This is a new phenomenon, and like any new bucket of mud, it is much more noticeable."
CAPTION: Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov listens as former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, left, speaks at an August news conference announcing their political alliance.