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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Steady Viktor Dips His Toe

For someone with poor concentration it was a little confusing.


Last Friday's founding congress of the new government vote-winning machine was held in the main hall of the Cinema Center on Krasnaya Presnya. The blockbuster for the day was not "The Empire Strikes Back" or even "Burned by the Sun." It was "Our Home Is Russia."


Eighteen months ago the setting was the "House of Cinema," down by Triumfalnaya Ploshchad. On offer that day was an epic that, despite great reviews, flopped at the box-office. It was called "Russia's Choice."


Both times delegates had gathered to praise President Boris Yeltsin and both times the free buffet was better than the speeches. Some men in sharp suits, like the young millionaire Oleg Boiko, head of OLBI, were at both launches -- and lunches. Boiko actually spent most of the time at a cafe table in the lobby making calls on his mobile phone. Asked if he was going to back the new party he said "Not yet."


Boiko's words were in fact the main refrain of guests at the party. The mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoly Sobhcak came for a look, gave a speech and then told reporters he hadn't yet joined the new party. So did industrialist Arkady Volsky.


Above all, one man threatened to turn the whole affair from a chart-topping Spielbergian success into a version of Samuel Beckett's most famous play. Just as in October 1993, a large sub-plot of the whole day was "Waiting for Boris." Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said that he had spoken to Yeltsin the evening before and the president had "wished him all the best."


Hadn't we heard that somewhere before? As if to confirm it, the brains behind the president, Viktor Ilyushin, blessed a lot of people with his cryptic smile Friday and, asked if this was a presidential party, he gave the same answer as Boiko: "Not yet."


The founding of a political party by Steady Viktor, a man who had never dipped his toe into election politics before, has set off a fevered debate among Russian political commentators.


One group of analysts sees Yeltsin's no-show as a sure sign that "Our Home" is just "Russia's Choice Mark Two." Just as Yegor Gaidar's party foundered at the polls, so will Chernomyrdin's, they say, and it could even be a set-up, an attempt to knock Chernomyrdin down before he has a chance to establish himself as a rival to Yeltsin. A second group sees the party as the new Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a kind of combine-harvester of Russian votes that will chew up all in its path and garner victory for the ruling elite.


In fact the two may not be irreconcilable. Our House will probably do well in the elections because it has something Russia's Choice lacked -- the formidable state apparatus on its side with all its access to the local media and local money both private and public.


But like Russia's Choice, Our House will be a temporary home for an alliance of people whose interests just happen to coincide in 1995. And if, for some reason, it comes apart before then, Yeltsin will have kept his distance.


What does the relatively forward-looking Konstantin Titov, the governor of Samara, have in common with Yevgeny Nazdratenko, the overbearing governor of Primorsky Krai? Both are prominent members of the party. But in a newspaper interview this week Titov said that he was a great admirer of privatization pioneer Anatoly Chubais, while on Monday, Nazdratenko accused Chubais of a Stalinist plot to overthrow him.


It is hard to imagine these men agreeing on defense conversion, on privatization, or on any of the nuts and bolts of long-term economic policy. If they come to a crossroads, they will take different ways.


This is a party without big policies, almost deliberately so. Vote for us, Chernomyrdin tells the voters, and you know what you're getting: no big shocks and more of the same.


The machine has two main tasks. The first is to turn the State Duma into a loyal servant of government policy. If that succeeds, it can help organize the re-election of Yeltsin in June 1996 (or if, for some reason, the president is not up to it, it can perform the same role for Chernomyrdin).


Russia's Choice lasted in its initial form little more than a year. If Our Home can stay the same distance it will have done its job.