Acting President Vladimir Putin's surprise alliance with Communist legislators this week demonstrates his political inexperience just 10 weeks before a presidential election he is heavily favored to win, political analysts and commentators said today.
In aligning his forces with Communists in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, he may have been seeking an expedient means of dealing with a powerful party that otherwise might frustrate his democratic goals, analysts said. Or, they said, he just may be ideological closer to the Communists than people believed.
In any case, it appears he miscalculated the political reaction, which has been overwhelmingly negative. "He didn't quite expect this situation," said Gennady Seleznev, the Communist speaker of the Duma, who met with Putin today to try to quiet the tumult raised by factions shut out of Putin's deal.
The parliamentary crisis, as the Russian media is calling it, began Tuesday when members of Unity, a centrist party supported by Putin, agreed to divide up the legislative leadership posts with the Communists, the largest faction in the 450-seat house. They left just three committees to centrist and reformist factions that represent more than a quarter of the Duma membership.
Leaders of those factions--some of Russia's best-known politicians--stormed out of the chamber in protest. They continued to embarrass the Kremlin by boycotting today's session, which bore little resemblance to the picture many analysts had painted of an activist Duma after reform-minded and centrist candidates made a strong showing in Dec. 19 parliamentary elections and looked forward to a coalition with the pro-Putin Unity party.
Two former prime ministers, Yevgeny Primakov and Sergei Kiriyenko, stood in a Duma corridor today, explaining why they could not take part in the legislature's second day of work. Inside the chamber, Lyubov Sliska, a Unity party legislator, was named first deputy speaker while ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky was chosen deputy speaker.
Meanwhile, after weeks of silence in the face of Putin's growing popular strength, the acting president's political critics and opponents suddenly found their voices. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said the alliance of pro-Putin legislators and Communists is just "one of the first signs of the upcoming Bolshevik dictatorship." At the same time, Konstantin Titov, the reform-minded governor of the Samara region, announced that he would run in the March 26 election to choose a successor to Boris Yeltsin, who resigned Dec. 31.
Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the reformist Yabloko faction, reasserted his candidacy, saying Putin is to blame "for the first parliamentary crisis" here since 1993. Primakov, who had seemed to shelve his presidential hopes after Putin ascended from prime minister to acting president on Yeltsin's resignation, said today that he has not ruled out running.
What had given all of them pause was Putin's overwhelming popular support and his ability to tap Kremlin resources in his election effort. But that support, analysts pointed out, rests partly on the fact that Putin has no political biography. "He is a tabula rasa," said Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment. "And everybody is writing on this blackboard what he is longing for. [Putin] gives very simple answers, or he avoids giving answers at all, because this works to his advantage. The people are set to elect a question mark."
On the opening day of the Duma session, Putin had to make a political choice. The Unity party, by allying with the Communists, gained a simple, clear majority in the house. Had Putin attempted to build a reformist-centrist bloc, as many had expected, he would have had to deal with three smaller factions, each presumably ready to forward its own demands.
Some analysts said Putin may have co-opted the Communists, who often frustrated Yeltsin's agenda. Yuri Korgunyuk, an analyst with the Indem Foundation, said Putin can still turn to progressive factions to push through economic and social measures. "He can maneuver in one direction or the other," Korgunyuk said.
Others said they believe Putin sided with the Communists because he is ideologically closer to them. "What can you expect from this new majority?" asked Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political commentator close to Primakov. "Not pro-market, pro- democratic legislation."
Above all, many analysts said, Putin and his advisers revealed their inexperience and overconfidence in failing to foresee the firestorm they would ignite by cutting reformists out of the Duma leadership.
"They thought they could control all the political processes," said Mark Urnov, a political analyst with Expertisa, a Moscow policy research group. "Yesterday demonstrated the situation is much more complicated. It was a very, very big mistake."