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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chernomyrdin to Play Politics

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the longest-serving and most faithful member of President Boris Yeltsin's Cabinet, finally accepted the chance Monday to pursue his future in electoral politics. The question is whether he has one.

As part of Yeltsin's surprise Cabinet shake-up Monday, Chernomyrdin announced that he would leave his post as prime minister to focus on reviving the ailing Our Home is Russia party for upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for 1999 and 2000. The president gave Chernomyrdin his blessing, praising his loyalty and bestowing him with the Order for Services to the Fatherland, Second Class.

"Slightly more than two years are left before the presidential elections, and I can't remain indifferent to the future of the country," Chernomyrdin said at a news conference. "I'm sure we will gather together all progressive, democratic forces in organizing this new political work. This is a big responsibility, a big task for our country."

A consummate bureaucrat who has served as prime minister since December 1992, Chernomyrdin has long been tipped as a contender to succeed Yeltsin, though he declined to say Monday whether he would run for the presidency. Some analysts believe that Yeltsin, by asking Chernomyrdin to spearhead election preparations, had effectively anointed his successor.

"Yeltsin would like to provide some continuity, and I think there is no other obvious candidate for this position in his close environment," said Yevgeni Volk, director of the Heritage Foundation in Moscow.

Chernomyrdin first took over the prime minister's post from Yegor Gaidar in December 1992, moving up from his post as fuel and energy minister and before that as the head of Gazprom, Russia's state gas monopoly.

At the time, he was seen as a staunch ally of so-called "red directors," who opposed Gaidar's radical economic reforms. In one of his first acts, he shocked the country by calling for a nationwide price freeze, though the order was quickly repealed.

He only became a convert to free market economics after the Black Tuesday ruble crash in 1994, when the currency fell 25 percent in one day. He has since received some of the credit for Russia's financial stability, although he has taken a back seat to first deputy prime ministers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov.

Chernomyrdin has a patchy record in public politics. Before the last parliamentary elections in 1995, he founded the political party Our Home is Russia, or Nash Dom Rossiya. Alternatively called the "party of power" and "Nash Dom Gazprom," in a jibe at his close ties to his alma mater. Our Home did poorly in the elections, garnering only 11 percent of the vote, and has since been weakened by internal differences.

Analysts said that Chernomyrdin's new position outside the government will both help and harm him. He will have more freedom to maneuver and boost his public image by distancing himself from the government's unpopular policies and chronic inability to pay state wages. But outside the government, he will no longer be able to count on the support of regional governors who needed the prime minister to approve financing for various programs.

"I have big doubts about the political future of Chernomyrdin," said Sergei Kolmakov, deputy head of the Fond Politika think tank. "All the levers that he depended on were connected to the structure of power."

He should however be able to count on his share of support from the powerful financial factions that control Russia's media, including Boris Berezovsky of Logovaz, Vladimir Gusinksy of Most Group, and Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly he once headed.

"He's their man," said Volk. "He's the person from the former Communist establishment whom they know, who is predictable, who is manageable."

But Chernomyrdin still faces an uphill battle to become a viable candidate. Throughout the past year, opinion polls have consistently shown that he would garner only 4 to 5 percent of the vote in a presidential election. His lack of charisma is legendary. Despite a biweekly call-in show on RTR state television to brighten up his image, his ratings are still poor.

Berezovsky, for example, voiced doubts in an interview on NTV Sunday night. Chernomyrdin, he said, might not be "electable."