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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ex-Premier Lacks Style, Power Base For Success




Cut off from his roots in the structures of power, and lacking the charisma for electoral politics, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin faces a difficult path as he seeks to become president, political analysts said Monday.


The consummate gray administrator, the former Soviet gas bureaucrat has lost his natural platform: the government. Even support from his original power base, natural-gas behemoth Gazprom, cannot make up for the lackluster speaking style and lack of personal appeal of its former chairman, the conventional wisdom goes.


"I think his chances are practically zero," Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said of the likelihood that Chernomyrdin would win the presidency.


"His chances were connected with two factors: one, the enormous administrative resources which he had as prime minister," Petrov said, "and the second is the image he had of preserving the status quo. He lost both these when he resigned."


President Boris Yeltsin praised Chernomyrdin for his five years of service as prime minister even as he fired him and the rest of the Cabinet last Monday, saying the flagging cause of economic reform needed new energy.


But Yeltsin has stopped short of endorsing him for president, saying only that he wanted to free Chernomyrdin to concentrate on preparing for the upcoming elections, in 1999 for parliament and in 2000 for president. He didn't say whether he expected Chernomyrdin to run.


Yeltsin was similarly evasive Monday.


Chernomyrdin's candidacy "does not stand apart from the general context of our policies," Yeltsin was quoted as saying Monday by Interfax. But he said however, that Chernomyrdin's statement was "slightly off the mark."


But the truth is harsher than that, said Petrov: Yeltsin removed Chernomyrdin because he thought he was growing too strong and threatened Yeltsin's authority now and possibly in the 2000 elections.


Yeltsin has made conflicting statements on whether he intends to run in 2000.


That view was echoed by Sergei Chugayev, writing in Tuesday's edition of the Izvestia newspaper. "If Yeltsin had wanted to keep Chernomyrdin as an ally, he had to keep him in the government. ... But the prime minister was simply shoved out the door."


Petrov and others say Chernomyrdin may have felt obliged to make the announcement to help keep the pro-government political bloc, Our Home Is Russia, afloat.


Our Home Is Russia, which finished third with 10.3 percent of the vote in the 1995 parliamentary elections, has struggled with internal divisions and an inability to build a grass-roots organization to rival that of the opposition Communists.


The opinion that Chernomyrdin's day has passed echoed elsewhere, too. Communist Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, with whom Chernomyrdin has cordial relations, said last week that "Viktor Stepanovich's political star has set."


Chernomyrdin's enemies have, not surprisingly, taken up the theme. "Without the portfolio of prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin cannot hope to win the presidential elections in Russia," said Alexander Lebed, the former army general who has also declared his candidacy for the presidency.


"Today he is a played out variant," Lebed said Monday in Krasnoyarsk, where he is running for regional governor.


Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst and head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, took the opposite view. Volk said he believes Yeltsin is setting Chernomyrdin up as a potential successor and that the president has avoided openly endorsing him only for fear that Yeltsin's own unpopularity would rub off on him.


"It was a part of a carefully plotted scheme by Yeltsin to remove him from public criticism and make him an actual successor in this political game which is going on now," Volk said.


Chernomyrdin's base of support, which includes Gazprom and many former Soviet industrial managers, guarantees him the funding and media access to run an effective campaign despite his poor public speaking abilities, Volk said.


But Gazprom's support may be conditional on Chernomyrdin improving his current low standing in the polls. Chernomyrdin was backed by only 6 percent of respondents in a Public Opinion Foundation poll broadcast by NTV on Sunday.


Stephen O'Sullivan, an oil and gas analyst at MC Securities in London, said Chernomyrdin would be Gazprom's clear choice at the moment, but that the company also wants to back a winner.


"You have to look like a contender for those 27 months to retain Gazprom's support," O'Sullivan said. "If other candidates emerge that look like they are more likely to win, or if Gazprom decides Chernomyrdin isn't going to make it, then they may look elsewhere.


"The question is, does he have enough broad-based support in the country to warrant their pushing harder, and I think we're too early to tell that at the moment."


Gazprom spokesman Vladimir Zhukov declined to discuss Chernomyrdin's announcement. "Gazprom is outside of politics, and cannot comment," said Zhukov. "It's a purely political question."