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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

As Rumors Fly, Putin Prepares for 2000

With rumors swirling around Moscow that he is about to be sacked, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reiterated Friday that he will run for president in 2000.

Also on Friday, Putin met with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, one of the Kremlin's most bitter enemies, to discuss Russia's political situation and the 2000 federal budget, Interfax reported. It was the second time in as many days that Putin had met with Luzhkov, who together with former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov heads the opposition bloc Fatherland-All Russia.

Primakov publicly expressed support for Putin on Friday and said somebody was "trying to create a smoke screen to carry out certain steps" against the prime minister, Interfax reported.

The developments could indicate that yet another political shake-up is imminent.

Putin's announcement that he plans to run for president is a repeat of a pledge he made in August when President Boris Yeltsin named the sullen ex-KGB spy as his fifth prime minister in 17 months - and his preferred successor. Then, however, Putin was clearly speaking with Yeltsin's blessing. Now, the president's sentiments are less clear and Putin's position looks increasingly precarious.

A political unknown when Yeltsin plucked him out of obscurity three months ago, Putin has since seen his popularity soar - mostly on the wings of the military campaign he has orchestrated in Chechnya. Putin now enjoys strong support among the military and security services, and polls show him as Russia's leading presidential candidate.

But recently, Moscow has been rife with speculation that Putin has fallen out of favor with Yeltsin - who has fired four prime ministers since March 1998 - and will soon be sacked. Some press reports suggested that Putin was simply becoming too popular for the mercurial Yeltsin, who jealously guards his power. Others claimed that Western governments were pressuring Moscow to end the war in Chechnya, a move that would seriously undermine Putin's credibility and public standing.

Last month, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin said it would be "premature" to consider Putin as Yeltsin's successor.

Speculation about Putin's imminent demise increased Thursday when the Kremlin made a surprise announcement that it was ready for peace talks in Chechnya - and apologized to Chechen civilians for "mistakes" that were made in the war. At the time, Putin was away in Izhevsk celebrating the 80th birthday of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle.

Putin's spokesman, Mikhail Kozhukhov, said Friday "there is no reason" for the prime minister to be removed. He also said Putin expected to remain prime minister until the end of Yeltsin's term.

But Alexander Zhilin, a well-connected political and military analyst for the weekly newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti, said powerful Kremlin insiders, including tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, fear and distrust Putin and are scheming to get him sacked.

The newspaper Kommersant, which Berezovsky owns, ran a front-page story Friday describing in detail how Putin is putting together a campaign staff that includes Kremlin and government officials.

Analysts said the report looked suspiciously like an attempt by Berezovsky to sabotage Putin by making his presidential ambitions clear to the notoriously jealous Yeltsin.

Putin said Friday that he was indeed planning to run for president, although he denied that he was using government resources or personnel in his campaign.

"There can be no election headquarters within the government," he was quoted as saying by Interfax. "As for my presidential candidacy, I was asked the question on my first day of work in the government and I said yes. As you know, I do not go back on my word."

Putin's lack of support among Russia's powerful financial-industrial groups and his inability to influence the country's lucrative state-owned enterprises make him particularly vulnerable.

This was starkly illustrated in September when Putin was unable to prevent the firing of Dmitry Savelyev, head of Russia's state-owned oil pipeline company, Transneft. Savelyev was ousted in a much-publicized coup orchestrated by First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko, a Berezovsky ally, while Putin was out of Moscow.

"Putin is prime minister only on paper," said Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "He is playing a largely symbolic role and is not really a strong independent player. This was clearly demonstrated by the situation with Transneft. He would be easy to replace."

Putin, however, has been trying to fight back by courting Russia's military and security services.

"Putin has turned to the military and security services for support," military analyst Alexander Pikayev said. "He is limited in his political base and doesn't have the complete support of the Yeltsin administration."

Putin vowed Friday to provide more money to Russia's cash-starved armed forces to make them more powerful and effective, Itar-Tass reported. Putin already increased military spending by $387 million for this year and his 2000 budget calls for another increase of $1 billion. Next year, Russia's proposed military budget will be $5.57 billion.

And the military - at least the part that is active in Chechnya - has responded in kind.

"I would say that [Putin] is today a symbol behind which many people march. I am in the first rank, without a doubt," Reuters quoted General Vladimir Shamanov, who commands Russia's forces in the Caucasus, as saying. "All Russians are sick of the fact that Russia is humiliated, insulted and asking for handouts."

"A large part of the military establishment sees Putin as a guarantee that the war in Chechnya will continue, that the military budget will increase and that Russia will take a more assertive stand abroad,'' said Pikayev. ''For a long time the military has been dissatisfied with what it sees as Yeltsin's weak foreign policy. Putin's style and behavior contrast with this sharply.''

Meanwhile, relations between Putin and Fatherland-All Russia - the Kremlin's chief political opponent - seem to have warmed considerably.

Earlier this week, NTV television suggested that Putin could join forces with Primakov and Luzhkov if fired.