Is Chernomyrdin's Star Fading Even Faster Than It Rose?

Only a few months ago, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin was riding high. The Russian Prime Minister's success in negotiating release of Russian hostages from Chechen rebels made him look like a leading contender for the presidency--especially since President Boris Yeltsin's health and popularity have been fading fast. Western policymakers were relieved to see a solid, if unglamorous, successor in the wings.

But a month is a long time in Russian politics. As the country gears up for parliamentary elections on Dec. 17--followed by presidential elections in June, 1996--Chernomyrdin is already running into trouble. His new political party, Our Home Is Russia, was trounced in its first electoral test in a regional ballot on Aug. 12. One factor for voters was persistent

economic trouble, still severe enough to spur the government to appeal to the International Monetary Fund for an $18 billion loan. Meanwhile, a new political star is rising: Former General Alexander Lebed, an outspoken populist and nationalist, has come out on top in new public opinion polls.

"A LOT TO LOSE." For Chernomyrdin, the upshot could be just the opposite of what he hoped for when he set up his party in May. Instead of consolidating his power base, Our Home may end up with no more than 15% of the seats in the 450-member Duma, analysts predict. That could give Chernomyrdin's opponents--or even Yeltsin--a chance to call for his resignation on the grounds that he failed to win a mandate. Says Moscow political consultant Sergei Mikhailov: "Chernomyrdin has a lot to lose."

The Prime Minister's dilemma is partly a result of Russia's still nascent democracy. As many as 100 political parties are expected to take part in the December elections, confusing voters. The centrist Our Home party was set up with Yeltsin's endorsement to create the basis for a two-party system in Russia. Made up of federal bureaucrats and high-level local officials, it was dubbed "the party of power."

RATINGS SLUMP. Now, that's a liability. "Chernomyrdin's bloc is seen as the status quo, so everyone will run against it," says Michael McFaul, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. Even Yeltsin has distanced himself from Our Home, keeping his options open. Although Yeltsin's approval rating has slumped to a dismal 4.8%, Kremlin observers say he wants to run again next year. Some believe Yeltsin might even call off the presidential elections if he decides he can't win.

Over the next few months, Chernomyrdin will be cranking his party's campaign into full gear. With support from businesspeople, Our Home seems on track to raise from $20 million to $50 million in campaign funds. The trick will be transforming that money into votes. In the 1993 elections, business gave more than $200 million to the Russia's Choice party led by Yegor T. Gaidar, but nationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky gained the most votes. Zhirinovsky may win fewer seats this time as voters switch to Lebed.

To come out of the December ballot stronger, Chernomyrdin has to emerge as one of the top two vote-getters. For now, the betting is that the election may lead to a virtual stalemate: five or six parties sharing almost equal blocs of seats in the Duma. That would throw the presidential race wide open. So both Westerners and Russians should be prepared: It may take many more political fights to decide who--if anyone--succeeds Yeltsin.

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