Director Ponders Kremlin's Top Post

Could a good-looking, popular film director with virtually no political experience become the next president of Russia?

The question intrigued several Russian newspapers Tuesday. They said Nikita Mikhalkov, who acted in and directed the 1994 Oscar-winning film "Burned by the Sun," could become a leading player in the 2000 campaign if he chose to run.

"Mikhalkov's appearance in the campaign equation could seriously disrupt the political balance," the daily Kommersant wrote in its lead front-page story.

"He is fully capable of attracting great-power patriotism with his director's glory and thick mustache."

Sparking the latest speculation was an interview in London's Sunday Times in which Mikhalkov, 53, said: "I am not seeking power over people, but I feel that if people really need and want me as president, then I would have to think seriously about it."

Yet some analysts quickly poured cold water on his chances.

"He has never once appeared in the list of the 10 most popular candidates," pollster Nugzar Betaneli said by telephone. "It seems like it's easy just to declare that you're a presidential candidate, but it's a very complex goal."

Mikhalkov did dip his toe into national politics in 1996, allowing his name to be on the list of candidates for the pro-government Our Home Is Russia party. Yet after insisting throughout the campaign that he was serious about becoming a member of parliament, he declined a seat when he won.

Alexander Shokhin, who was ousted last month as head of the party's faction in parliament, has suggested Mikhalkov head Our Home instead of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who has said he will run for president in 2000.

Several Russian newspapers on Tuesday mentioned prominent businessman Boris Berezovsky's support for Mikhalkov as one reason to take such a candidacy seriously.

"According to the opinion of a series of analysts, it is completely realistic for Mikhalkov to count on coming in third in the presidential race," the newspaper Segodnya wrote.

"In addition, one cannot exclude that even before the vote that the third-place winner would conclude a deal for the job of vice president or prime minister."

Mikhalkov, who is chairman of the Russian Union of Cinematographers, was in Germany on Tuesday and could not immediately be reached for comment. The latest publicity is unlikely to hurt his latest ventures, which include a new line of perfumes and a film, "The Barber of Siberia," to premiere in the Kremlin next month.