Russia's political roulette


MOSCOW -- Russia's spymaster turned prime minister, Vladimir Putin, is riding high on a wave of approval of his war in Chechnya, but a report in a leading newspaper last week made clear he was walking on a knife edge.

"Vladimir Putin has been sacked," said the Sevodnya newspaper in the day's most provocative headline. It explained below: "But only as the heir of (President) Boris Yeltsin."

The headline must have shocked, even if only for a moment, the unflappable Prime Minister Putin, once an active KGB spy in East Germany and head of one of the KGB's successor bodies immediately before becoming premier in August.

But political analysts said it showed that the strengthening in Mr. Putin's position since the start of the attack on Chechnya was likely to be temporary, hinging on the war remaining relatively bloodless for Moscow's forces and on Mr. Yeltsin's whim.

A successful war has been a boon for many leaders and Mr. Putin has so far been no exception to this rule.

NATO-style warfare

Russian forces have formed a security zone in north Chechnya without much opposition, pursuing a NATO-style bombing and shelling campaign without engaging in all-out fighting.

Despite it being the worst fighting since the end of the ill-fated 1994-96 Chechen war that cost the lives of tens of thousands and left the region out of Moscow's control, Mr. Putin has apparently benefited from his tough action.

From a rating of around two percent when he was named by Mr. Yeltsin in August as premier and as the man he would most like to replace him, recent opinion polls have put Mr. Putin in third place for people's choice in next year's presidential election.

A recent opinion poll, presented by commercial NTV television, put Mr. Putin at 14 percent, behind front-runner and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, and Communist Party chief Gennady Zyguganov.

But he was ahead of the likes of powerful Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and well-known liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky.

This was no mean feat for a man who had previously operated in the shadows of the world of espionage and whose public persona was flat, severe and humorless.

His popularity has risen in almost direct proportion to the toughness of the policy adopted toward Chechnya, apparently fulfilling the desire of many Russians for revenge for the defeat of Moscow's forces by the tiny region in 1994-96.

But how long this will last is another question and Mr. Putin must be worried about Russia's version of body bags -- zinc coffins known in military parlance as "Cargo Number 200."

"Apart from the understandable worry about sparing people's lives, the premier cannot but consider his political rating, which will inevitably fall if 'Load 200' arrives from Chechnya," says respected commentator Alexander Goltz.

The danger of the war going wrong is not the only threat for Mr. Putin. He remains at the whim of a president who has, within 18 months, hired and fired five prime ministers.

Although Mr. Putin seemed more secure than the others when Mr. Yeltsin proclaimed him as the man he wanted to be the next president, there have been persistent rumors that the Kremlin chief was unhappy with the premier and wanted to sack him.

Yeltsin successor

The rumors are linked to the heightened political tension ahead of December's elections to the State Duma lower house of parliament and, more particularly, to the race to fill Mr. Yeltsin's shoes when he stands down next year.

The theories are linked to the idea that a group of top officials in the Kremlin, including Mr. Yeltsin's family, wants to ensure its position of power even after Mr. Yeltsin goes. The nomination of Mr. Putin as prime minister was said to be the culmination of the Kremlin's search for a worthy and loyal successor that would keep the clique in power.

But Sevodnya reported that Mr. Yeltsin had once again become jealous of Mr. Putin's standing -- the reason said at the time to be behind the sacking of the increasingly popular Mr. Primakov.

Alan Rousso, director of the think tank, the Carnegie Moscow Center, said it was logical Mr. Yeltsin would want rid of Mr. Putin.

"I think we should be on a Putin watch," he said.

Patrick Lannin writes for Reuters.

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