Primakov Clears The Way For Putin

Yevgeny Primakov said Friday he would not run for president, bringing down the curtain on a once-formidable challenge to the Kremlin - and clearing one of the last obstacles from the path of acting President Vladimir Putin.

Putin was already a heavy favorite for the March 26 early election triggered by Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation Dec. 31.

Speaking on national RTR television, Primakov described his decision as "not a simple one" but said that the Duma campaign showed him that Russian politics was not democratic enough for him to win.

"After Dec. 17, 1999, when I agreed to participate in the presidential race, I received thousands of letters of support," he said on RTR television. "However, during the [State Duma] elections and when work began in the Duma, I realized how far our society is from ... true democracy. I don't think that the situation can change in a radical way in a few months."

Only six months ago, Primakov was a formidable contender for president, one of the leaders of an alternative "party of power" that drew other politicians to his banner like a magnet. Putin, named prime minister Aug. 9, was a little-known former spy agency head.

Russia's invasion of Chechnya in late September, however, quickly pushed Putin to the leading spot in presidential polls.

Then came the offensive from the Kremlin political machine, put together by Yeltsin's team to secure their goal of Putin as his successor.

First, Primakov and his allies were roughed up by state-run television coverage during the campaign for the Dec. 19 State Duma election. Then, in the election itself, the pro-Putin Unity bloc ran ahead of Primakov's Fatherland-All Russian coalition with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

Fatherland-All Russia began the Duma campaign as a favorite, but got only 12.64 percent of the vote, while Unity, neck and neck with the Communists, gathered a surprising 23.37 percent. Governors, a key support for Fatherland-All Russia, began defecting to Putin.

Then Yeltsin resigned, moving the election up from June and giving Primakov little time to recover.

Political analyst Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation said Primakov's decision a was realistic one.

"It was quite a natural decision because he had no chance of winning. In the best case he would have come in third or fourth - but he has lost out to a young, resolute and initiatory Putin," Volk said.

During eight months as prime minister in 1998-99, Primakov had earned plaudits for stabilizing the economy in the wake of the August 1998 crash. After he became too independent and ambitious, Yeltsin fired him, setting him up as a potential opposition contender.

Last summer, Primakov kept the political establishment waiting for months before joining the alliance of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's Fatherland party and the All Russia group of regional leaders.

But when Primakov announced on Dec. 17 that he would run for president, he was already viewed as a minimal challenge. Rather, it was seen as a desperate attempt to give a late boost to Fatherland-All Russia. The end came when Primakov was pushed out of contention for the post of Duma speaker.

Fatherland-All Russia, Yabloko, Union of Right Forces and Russia's Regions walked out of the first Duma session on Jan. 18 in protest after being left out in the cold when Unity cut a deal with the Communists to elect a Communist speaker, Gennady Seleznyov, and divide up most of the committee posts among themselves.

"Primakov was a threat before Yeltsin resigned," Volk said, "but he disappeared as a threat when Seleznyov was elected speaker. "The only major threat to Putin now is Chechnya - the war isn't over just because they crushed Grozny. The rebels will preserve their stronghold," Volk added.

The leading challenger now is Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who finished second to Yeltsin in the second round in 1996. Analysts say Zyuganov, thanks to a stable electorate of about 25 percent of voters, has a good chance of making a runoff if no one gets over 50 percent. But he has little chance of winning.

Other challengers, such as Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and flamboyant Duma Deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are lagging in the single digits.

Primakov did not say whom he would support for president, and said he didn't think he was finished with politics and government.

"I also want to add," he said, "that my decision not to run for president does not mean I'm going to give up all my strength, knowledge and experience to serve Russia and Russians in other posts ... ," he said.