Centrist political bloc dissolves in Russia

Maneuvers come before parliamentary elections


MOSCOW -- If ever there was an example of how hard it is for Russia's liberal politicians to work together, it was the collapse yesterday of Sergei V. Stepashin's new centrist electoral bloc.

Stepashin, who was ousted from his prime minister's post by President Boris N. Yeltsin this month, had been expected to announce yesterday that he would be leading the new alliance.

Instead, he surprised much of the country by declaring somewhat bitterly that he had failed to pull together the disparate group of democrats and power brokers and would be going it alone.

"Bringing people together who cannot be united is impossible," Stepashin, 47, told the Russian news service Interfax yesterday. "Their personal ambitions are too big."

Instead of serving as the standard-bearer of a new center-right alternative to Yevgeny M. Primakov, the enigmatic former prime minister who leads in opinion polls, Stepashin will run for a seat in the parliament as a representative from St. Petersburg.

With Russia entering a political season of expedient alliances and back-room deals, it is possible that some liberals and centrists might form marriages of convenience. But the immediate effect of Stepashin's failure to form a coalition was to improve the prospects of Primakov and his new political ally, Yuri Luzhkov, the pugnacious Moscow mayor.

The goal of the the Primakov-Luzhkov coalition is to capture a dominant position in the parliament in elections scheduled for December and to use those gains as a springboard in the 2000 presidential race.

Apparently aiming at the ultimate prize -- the Kremlin -- Luzhkov assailed yesterday Yeltsin and the economic reformers who once served him as a threat to Russia.

"The country is being robbed in a way that is unprecedented in its cynicism and permissiveness," said Luzhkov, whose own city government is no paragon of probity.

Friday night, the Russian news media were reporting that a Stepashin-led coalition was starting to jell. A key element of the emerging alliance, the media reported, was Viktor S. Chernomyrdin's movement, Our Home Is Russia. By linking with Chernomyrdin, another former prime minister, Stepashin hoped to capture the political center.

Yesterday, however, aides to Chernomyrdin disclosed that the coalition began to fall when Chernomyrdin refused to include the Democratic Choice party of Yegor T. Gaidar, another former prime minister, who played a historic role in building capitalism by liberalizing prices after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Another deal breaker was Chernomyrdin's refusal to allow Sergei V. Kiriyenko to be listed among the top three leaders of the alliance.

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