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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Third Force Dilemma

The "third force" option is now being put forward in the hope of attracting voters who cringe at the prospect of choosing between President Boris Yeltsin and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov in the June 16 election.

The logic of the proponents of this idea is not without merit. Approximately one half of the Russian electorate, according to most of the recent opinion polls, favors neither of the two front-runners. So it is not surprising that several politicians are banking their futures on this impressive share of the vote.

They are a loose amalgam of liberal, pragmatic and patriotic politicians in the opposition -- Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, Congress of Russian Communities leader Alexander Lebed, and Party of Free Labor leader Svyatoslav Fyodorov and even the "architect of perestroika" himself, Mikhail Gorbachev -- or one could also say, two former boxers, an aspiring horseman and the last and only president of the Soviet Union who has no known hobbies.

Given that the campaign for the presidency has resulted in candidates taking polarized stances, to be put in the category of third force is somewhat diminishing. It implies such a politician is more likely to be a power broker than a possible winner.

It is not surprising that Yavlinsky -- who does not count modesty as one of his better qualities --pointedly refuses to acknowledge any association with a third force. Gorbachev, ever the pragmatist, has been critical of the group for its failure to unite.

Technically, if not ideologically, the concept of a third force should also include Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is customarily brushed aside by the news media. But not by the voters, which is what ultimately counts. He will be a decisive power broker in the presidential race. Much of the electorate considers Zhirinovsky to be the most extreme opposition candidate. Given his astute political behavior, however, it is generally believed that Zhirinovsky will make a deal with the president one way or the other.

Almost every opinion poll as of this writing indicates that, barring any unforeseen developments in the campaign (Yeltsin's health may be one of them), none of the third force politicians are likely to make it to the second round. Lebed, with the best standing in the polls among the third force candidates, has no real chance of becoming one of the two finalists.

Only two years ago, one of Moscow's papers ran a solemn, full front-page picture of Yavlinsky with his son when he outstripped Yeltsin for the first time in a poll on voters' preference for president. Yavlinsky has been slipping ever since. Without any political power base to speak of, he has been kept afloat mostly through the news media.

Yabloko had a worse showing in the 1995 parliamentary elections than two years earlier -- a fact almost unnoticed in the press. The faction made an odd attempt to run its own candidate, Vladimir Lukin, for the Duma speaker last January. He garnered only the votes of his faction which clearly revealed Yabloko's real political weight inside the Duma. In a much publicized trade-off with the Communists, Yavlinsky's followers got most of their current posts in the parliament. Today Yavlinsky is a distant fourth in the presidential race; it should be remembered, though, that he tends to fare a lot better in the polls than at the polls.

The rest of the third force group are not doing much better. Lebed and Fyodorov each put up a respectable show in December but did not squeak through the 5 percent barrier. Gorbachev seems to be forever stuck at around 1 percent in the opinion polls.

One of the biggest problems with the third force is that it has been unable to rally around common issues and present itself as a real alternative to either Yeltsin or Zyuganov. The Communist Party leader has had an effective monopoly over using the public's widespread discontent with the state of the economy. The anti-war momentum has for the time being been preempted by Yeltsin's peace initiatives on Chechnya. Moreover, with the possible exception of Lebed, none of the candidates projects the image of a strong leader.

To make a difference in the campaign, Yavlinsky, Lebed, Fyodorov and Gorbachev must unite behind a single candidate before June 16. Yet none of them seems to be willing to defer to the other. And it is not only a question of a clash of political egos, which are always difficult to reconcile.

Gorbachev and Fyodorov would probably be more prone to forming an alliance now, since this is probably the last time they will be able to participate in a major political election, given their age.

Yavlinsky and Lebed, despite all the rumors of intensive back-door consultations, are less likely to present a united front. It is not so much their personalities that prevents them from doing so but that they claim the allegiance of very different electorates -- in ideology, background and even ethnic origin. One analyst even suggested a Russian equivalent of American primaries to choose the leader from among the third force candidates -- an original but obviously impractical idea.

And yet, if the prospects of capturing the big presidential prize are growing dimmer by the day, why are all four relentlessly pursuing their individual campaigns?

First, every officially registered candidate is entitled to a certain sum from the Treasury for campaigning, which can be used for organizational purposes. Second, the better they do, the more realistic the prospect of striking a good deal with any of the two finalists in the race after June 16. Third, and most important, is that they are positioning themselves for a much better showing in the 2000 presidential election. In Lebed's and Yavlinsky's case, this may work even beyond that date.

Viktor Linnik is the former editor of Pravda. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.