Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PARTY LINES: Is the Kremlin Banking on a Dirty Contest?




Perhaps I'm just insufficiently jaded, even after nearly seven years in Russia. But the events of the past week were, for my money, noteworthy. It isn't every day, even in Russia, that a top tycoon (Boris Berezovsky) goes on his own television station (ORT) and warns that a victory by one of the likely candidates in next year's presidential contest (Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov) will lead to "bloodshed." Nor is it every day that one of the country's main television channels (NTV) charges that the presidential administration chief (Alexander Voloshin) was implicated in various financial scams that ripped off thousands of people.


The amount of mud already in the air makes it a safe bet that the walk-up to the December parliamentary vote will set new records for dirtiness. The basic battle lines have been drawn, with Luzhkov and Vladimir Gusinsky, head of Media Most (which includes NTV), on one side; the Kremlin "family" ? including Berezovsky (and thus ORT) and Voloshin ? on the other.


Neither side gives the slightest indication it is ready to blink. On the contrary: The Kremlin reportedly sics the Federal Security Service on a business run by Luzhkov's wife, and the Moscow mayor immediately slugs back, accusing Berezovsky and the Kremlin of being behind the probe and calling for the removal of the authorities. NTV, meanwhile, airs Luzhkov's accusations and launches a few of its own and, the very next day, Gusinsky's publishing house gets a visit from the tax police.


On one level, the Kremlin's blatant attacks on Luzhkov seem ill-considered, since they let him re-fashion himself as an outsider taking on the establishment. The image of Luzhkov fighting City Hall, of course, is ludicrous, but the Kremlin's attacks may make it plausible to the electorate ? just the way the Politburo's attacks on the Moscow Party boss, Boris Yeltsin, made him a man of the people.


It is hard to believe, however, that the Kremlin is unaware of the backfire potential in its attacks on Luzhkov, Gusinsky & Co. Is it possible the Kremlin is deliberately trying to instigate a super-dirty, super-confrontational campaign? Note the comments Thursday from Mikhail Lesin, Yeltsin's recently appointed press minister. While making all the usual obligatory noises about respecting press freedom and so on, Lesin said: "There is no doubt that mass media today have a lot more ways to influence the state than the other way round. That is why protection of the state from free mass media is a very pressing issue today."


This comment is open to various interpretations. Lesin might mean the state is ready to limit "free mass media." Or perhaps to invalidate the results of an election sullied by press excesses.


In addition, a dirt-strewn, polarized electoral campaign could also help legitimize Yeltsin's continued presence after June 2000. This week, political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who reportedly has the ear of the "family," said Yeltsin might stay on in some sort of official or quasi-official role concurrently with a newly-elected president.


In Pavlovsky's account, "the old system is impossible without Yeltsin" while "the new [system] cannot simply appear as a result of elections." Hence Yeltsin can play a role similar to that of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping ? for "a brief period," of course.