Putin’s rise to the presidency was rapid and unexpected. In March 1999 a distinguished group of scholars assembled in Washington DC to discuss the likely candidates for the June 2000 presidential election. The name Vladimir Putin was not mentioned – not even among the dozen or so possible outsider candidates.
Vladimir Putin's meteoric rise from relative obscurity to the Russian presidency in the course of a few short months of 1999 has been attributed to his intimacy with the "Family" as a protege of Berezovsky and Yumashev. By the end of 1999 the Family had persuaded Yeltsin to name Putin his political successor and candidate for the presidency.
Berezovsky's acquaintance with Putin dated back to the early 1990s, when the latter, as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, helped Logovaz establish a car dealership. They enjoyed friendly relations; on occasion, Berezovsky took Putin skiing with him in Switzerland.
In February 1999, when Berezovsky's political standing looked uncertain because of his clash with Primakov over Aeroflot, Putin, then Director of the FSB, made a bold gesture of friendship by showing up at a birthday party for Berezovsky's wife. "I absolutely do not care what Primakov thinks of me", Putin told Berezovsky on that night. That was the beginning of their political alliance. According to the Times, Spanish police discovered that on up to five different occasions in 1999 Putin had secretly visited a villa in Spain belonging to Berezovsky.
In mid-July 1999 the Family dispatched Berezovsky to Biarritz, where Putin was vacationing, to persuade him to accept the position of prime minister and the role of heir apparent. On 9 August Yeltsin sacked the government of Sergei Stepashin and appointed Putin prime minister.
The December 1999 Duma election, and not the March 2000 presidential poll, was the key electoral event in Putin’s rise. In the course of the year a powerful movement had emerged among regional leaders anxious to consolidate the autonomy they had won during the Yeltsin years.
The initiator was Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who formed his Otechestvo (Fatherland) movement in December 1998, which claimed to be running against the oligarchs who dominated the federal government. However, most governors remained wary of a movement led by the mayor of the rich and privileged city of Moscow. In April 1999 Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev and St.Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev created a rival movement, Vsya Rossiya (All Russia). In August Luzhkov joined them to form the Fatherland/All Russia alliance (OVR), under the leadership of ousted premier Primakov.
OVR was a serious threat to Yeltsin, and the dismissal of Prime Minister Stepashin in August was in part due to his failure to prevent its emergence. Victory in the Duma election could propel Luzhkov or Primakov into the presidency in June 2000.
Perhaps Berezovsky's most serious impact on the election was the creation of the the new faction supporting Putin, the Unity party, which won the largest share of seats in the Duma with a campaign in which it put forth no serious platform or policy positions.
In 1999 – 2000, mr. Berezovsky had full controll over the main state television channel, ORT, which during these years has played a decisive role in promoting Mr Putin and his Unity party, destroying his rivals Yuriy Luzhkov and Evgeniy Primakov for the Russian presidency.
The most brutal propaganda came in the “author’s programs’ of Mikhail Leont’ev and Sergei Dorenko. ORT newscasts devoted 28% of time to Unity, twice as much as to OVR, and the former coverage was positive while the latter was mostly negative. On the other hand Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV and Luzhkov-controlled TV-Tsentr backed.
OVR. See the report from European Institute for the Media, Monitoring of Media Coverage during the Parliamentary Elections in Russia in December 1999, Dusseldorf.
The news and slander programs on the Berezovsky-controlled ORT television station launched a devastating propaganda blitz against Primakov and Luzhkov. Luzhkov was accused of everything from running a private army to sheltering the Japanese terrorist sect Aum Shinrikyo. (Some of thecharges were even true.) Unity’s philosophy was simple: support for Prime Minister Putin, who was leading the fight against the Chechen “bandits.” The official leader of Unity was the ambitious young Minister for Emergency Situations, Sergei Shoigu, who explained “Many people call us Putin’s party.
Well, it’s true.” Putin, as premier and then acting president, was closely associated with Unity, although he only formally endorsed it in November. It is difficult to explain Unity’s success: it had no program to speak of, its leaders were not well-known. Its association with the increasingly-popular Putin seems to have been the decisive factor.
As Putin’s rating rose the Yeltsin camp became increasingly confident that they had found the ideal successor. Yeltsin’s decision to step down and appoint Putin “acting president’, but more importantly, it boosted Putin’s chances of winning the election. Putin would have the crucial advantage of incumbency: the ability to use the presidential office to mobilize support and cultivate an image of leadership. It seemed that Putin’s popularity had already reached its peak and would erode over time – especially if Russian forces were to suffer setbacks in Chechnya. Yeltsin’s resignation minimized this risk by bringing forward the election from June to the end of March, since the constitution decrees that elections must be held within three months of a presidential resignation.
Although Putin himself seemed to come from nowhere, there was one aspect of his rise that was predictable: the institutional mechanics of his elevation. Yeltsin created a political system that was held together through patronage, and in which political succession hinged was the prerogative of the incumbent leader. There were two other striking regularities of political succession under Yeltsin: the use of the post of prime minister as a sounding-board for potential successors, and increasing reliance on the security organs as a source of candidates. (Three of the four prime ministers appointed in the last 18 months of Yeltsin’s rule came from the security apparatus).
Yeltsin had very practical reasons for being concerned about the identity of his successor. In the winner-take-all world of Russian politics, there were no guarantees that a future Russian president (under pressure from the Duma, for example) would not seek to strip Yeltsin of his government-provided villas, medical services, and other privileges, and even sanction his criminal prosecution. The same held true for the members of Yeltsin’s circle: his daughter and “image consultant” Tatyana Dyachenko, his other daughter’s husband Valerii Okulov, an Aeroflot executive, and the rest of his entourage known as “the Family.” Again, however, it is important to remember that Russia is not unique in facing this problem of indemnifying corrupt or repressive leaders as an unpleasant precondition for removing them from office. It is a feature of democratic transitions from Indonesia to Chile. (Yeltsin’s case differs slightly, in that he is a transitional figure, intermediate between the old regime and a democratic future.)
Putin, the ever-loyal apparatchik, was trusted to meet this criterion for office. The day after Yeltsin’s surprising resignation on 31 December, Putin as “acting president” signed a decree granting Yeltsin and his immediate family immunity from prosecution. (The same day he also made a well-publicized trip to Chechnya.)
In a 20-minute televised interview Tuesday, Putin gave the first detailed description of the sequence of events leading up to Yeltsin's unexpected announcement Friday that he was stepping down. Putin acknowledged that Yeltsin's surprise move gave him a substantial advantage in the presidential campaign before a special election tentatively set for March. Yeltsin, he said, was primarily motivated by his desire to continue controlling Russia's destiny after leaving office.
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