Russia: How Terrorism Could Boost Yeltsin's Rivals

Moscow residents watched wide-eyed as rescuers pulled the bodies of pajama-clad children from the rubble of an eight-story building on the city's outskirts. At 5 a.m. on Sept. 13, a bomb destroyed the building, leaving at least 118 people dead. It was the third explosion in the city in two weeks. While no one has claimed responsibility, Russian security agencies blame Islamic rebels from the Caucasus region.

Apart from terrifying Moscovites, the attacks are raising the pressure on Russia's leaders to sky-high levels just as they are gearing up for crucial parliamentary elections on Dec. 19. Presidential elections are scheduled to follow in July, 2000. Rumors are swirling that President Boris N. Yeltsin will use the terrorism as an excuse for calling a state of emergency and canceling the elections. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov called for police searches of up to 3 million people daily. And Prime Minister Vladimir Putin closed all roads leading from Chechnya into Russia.

TAKE THE BLAME. If the violence continues, almost anything could happen. But for now, most analysts expect the elections to go ahead. Of all the political contenders, Luzhkov and his ally, former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, may be in the best position to gain a boost from the disorder. Even though Luzhkov is mayor, he doesn't have authority over most of Moscow's security forces, which answer to the federal government. Federal forces, not the city's 70,000-strong police force, are in charge of the counter-terrorist operation. Luzhkov can let Putin take the blame for not preventing the attacks.

Primakov, meanwhile, is out of office and can't do anything directly to track down terrorists. But he can bolster his already strong reputation as a crime fighter by criticizing the government. "For Primakov and Luzhkov it's perfect. Primakov is a law-and-order man and not connected to the Yeltsin Administration. And Luzhkov represents stability," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of Fond Politika, a Moscow think tank. Both are contenders for the presidency.

Up to now, Luzhkov and Primakov haven't missed a step. On Sept. 8, Luzhkov announced he was rescheduling the Moscow mayoral election from July, 2000--the same time as the next presidential election--to Dec. 19. That ensures Luzhkov a political role, no matter what he decides to do about the presidential elections. In 1996, Luzhkov won the mayoral race with more than 90% of the vote, and he could very easily be re-elected.

Luzhkov's decision to rejigger the election closely followed the creation of his alliance with Primakov on Aug. 28. Their Fatherland-All Russia bloc quickly became the country's most popular political party. Polls show it is likely to win 25% of the seats in the parliamentary elections, snatching control from the Communists. Primakov is the front-runner for the presidential race, according to polls, with Luzhkov third after Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov. Putin, Yeltsin's preferred successor, trails way behind.

Luzhkov may work behind the scenes to quell Moscow's violence. The Mayor has close ties with Moscow's Chechen business elite, and the city has partnered with some of them in high-profile commercial deals. He successfully used this relationship to end a short spate of bombings in the mid-1990s during the Chechen war. If Luzhkov's lobbying is effective again, he will boost his reputation as a can-do mayor even further. But the longer the violence continues, the greater the chances Yeltsin may be forced to declare a state of emergency and even cancel the elections. That goes against his political instincts. But these days in Russia the terrorists seem to hold the cards.

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