A simmering political feud broke into open warfare today when former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov accused a financier close to the Kremlin of trying to bribe candidates to abandon Primakov's bloc in the upcoming parliamentary election.
Primakov, who heads the coalition with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, first broached the subject late Thursday, when he said members of his Fatherland-All Russia bloc had been offered bribes to withdraw from the Dec. 19 ballot. A Kremlin spokesman then challenged Primakov to name names.
Today, Primakov charged that Alexander Mamut, a one-time lawyer and banker who is close to President Boris Yeltsin's inner circle, had offered the bribes to candidates to pull out of the bloc, but did not offer any evidence. Mamut told reporters that Primakov's claims "are libelous" and vowed to sue for slander.
But the charge served to bring into full view the intense struggle underway between two major forces as the election approaches. The fight is between the Primakov-Luzhkov bloc and the coterie of financiers and aides around Yeltsin, who are known as "the family." Mamut, 39, is one of the bankers close to tycoon and media magnate Boris Berezovsky and oilman Roman Abramovich, both of whom have close ties to the Kremlin and Yeltsin's influential daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko.
Berezovsky has acknowledged that he is attempting to torpedo the political hopes of Primakov and Luzhkov. In the past, he has been sharply at odds with both, who in turn have been among Berezovsky's critics.
In recent weeks, Sergei Dorenko, one of Berezovsky's television commentators, has used his weekly program to wage a smear campaign against Luzhkov and Primakov, while Luzhkov's allies at newspapers and on television have been airing retaliatory "kompromat," or compromising materials, against the tycoon.
Amid the mudslinging, Luzhkov's rating in public opinion polls has slumped, and the share of people saying they would vote for the Primakov-Luzhkov party has also slipped. But the smear campaigns are not the only factor.
Political analysts have said one reason for the Primakov slide is that his party's campaign has been ill-managed; another reason has been the meteoric rise of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during the current war in Chechnya.
The Kremlin has been pushing for its own newly minted party, headed by Sergei Shoigu, a cabinet minister for emergency situations.
In response to Primakov's charge against Mamut, the Kremlin said today that Mamut is not on the payroll but is one of several "unofficial" advisers to the administration.