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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ticket: Lebed and Skokov

It would seem to be the case that there is not much shoulder room in Russia's political space, there being so many parties and presidential contenders on offer.


But there is one gap that has not yet been filled properly and that is mainstream patriotic Russian nationalism. There is a huge constituency of voters who will respond to that cause. They are ordinary Russians who are angry about the collapse of the Soviet Union and indignant about the treatment of Russians in Kazakhstan or Estonia but who do not want a return to communism.


A large part of this electorate are probably alienated by the behavior of the two highest profile Russian nationalists, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Alexander Rutskoi. Zhirinovsky's buffoonish antics have given him the highest negative poll-rating of any Russian politician, while Rutskoi's threats to put his enemies in jail hardly inspires confidence with the ordinary voter.


But now it looks as though the moderate nationalist gap is being filled by two heavyweights, Yeltsin's former Security Council secretary Yury Skokov and the now ex-general Alexander Lebed.


Skokov has been the bogey man of Russian democrats for some three years now. As Security Council secretary, he was fingered for every complex or dastardly political move that democrats saw eroding their power at the time. Nobody ever tied any single policy or significant development to Skokov, but that elusiveness seemed only to make him all the more fearsome.


Democrats remember with a shudder how Skokov came within an ace of becoming prime minister in December 1992, when he got more votes in the free vote in the Congress of People's Deputies than Viktor Chernomyrdin, who ended up with the job. In virtually his last act as acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar supposedly managed to persuade the president to appoint Chernomyrdin, not Skokov. Since then the political fabric has only to wobble slightly and some newspaper commentator utters "Skokov is coming."


Skokov's connections and political skills are legendary. So is his ambition. Last year many people started noticing that he was maneuvering for power again by talking both to the opposition and to friends in Yeltsin's administration, such as the president's chief aide and fellow Sverdlovsk native, Viktor Ilyushin. The means and the ideology were apparently less important than the final goals. But Skokov is the ultimate shadowy politician and has virtually no public profile at all. He could go unnoticed in the metro at rush hour.


That is where Lebed comes in. Skokov's political skills and friends are being harnessed in support of Lebed's charisma and booming voice. The general, after all, has no formal political experience. But he has captured the imagination of a section of the public like no one else, and has impeccable nationalist credentials as the man who used the 14th Army in Moldova to save the Russian speaking minority there. A poll in this week's Argumenty i Fakty says he is now Russia's second most popular politician after Grigory Yavlinsky. Another poll in Obshchaya Gazeta predicts that he would beat Yeltsin, Zhirinovsky or Yavlinsky in a straight run-off in the second round of a presidential election.


Lebed appears to possess a winning formula -- the sound bites and eloquence of a natural politician with a believable contempt for politicians as a class that will endear him to a politics-weary electorate. Ironically he is the precise opposite of Skokov in this respect, who is the supreme political animal. But their interests have converged in the nationalist middle-ground and look promising.


A number of fairly influential politicians have already climbed on board the bandwagon, scenting electoral success -- men like Sergei Glazyev, Konstantin Zatulin and Stanislav Govorukhin. All of them have a nationalist agenda, but no obvious political home. I wouldn't be surprised if a few more homeless souls like Oleg Rumyantsev or Mikhail Poltoranin soon follow suit. The guest list at the next conference in two weeks time will make interesting reading.


The Lebed-Skokov show is already on the road. They have been in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. Lebed has said he is running for the Duma in December in Tula, where he used to command a division of airborne troops.


A presidential bid cannot be far behind. Lebed will have the presidency in his sights and Skokov will at least hope to complete his revenge on Chernomyrdin, taking back the prime ministerial post that was so nearly his in 1992.