London (CNSNews.com) - Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin's surprise decision this week to team up with Communist lawmakers in the newly-elected Duma was an attempt to sideline the man who may pose the most serious challenge to his leadership, a Russian affairs specialist said Thursday.
Dr. Martin McCauley of the University of London told CNSNews.com the move had "astonished everyone" because it was generally expected that Putin would form an alliance with pro-Western reformist and centrist blocs "on the other side" from the Communist Party.
Instead, the former KGB spy negotiated a pact with the Communists, which gave the party's Gennady Seleznyov the post of speaker - the third most powerful position in Russia. That decision caused an uproar in the 450-seat Duma, prompting a walkout by 137 centrist and liberal lawmakers, including three former prime ministers.
McCauley said Putin was attempting to marginalize former premier Yevgeny Primakov, whom he had earlier considered for the speaker's post in order to remove him from the presidential contest scheduled for March 26.
"It was thought that Primakov was going to be elected speaker of the Duma, and that Primakov would not then run for president. That was a deal which they talked about previously.
"Mr. Putin obviously changed his mind. Primakov as speaker could actually transform parliament into an anti-Putin, anti-government, body."
Primakov today announced that he will contest the presidential election after all.
Others who have said they will run for president are the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky, and Konstantin Titov, a regional governor who told Russian television the Putin-Communist deal was a "cruel, cynical strike against democracy."
Although he had earlier spoken of running for president, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov's position remains uncertain.
He could either withdraw and tell his supporters to back Putin, McCauley said, or go ahead and run, thus splitting the anti-Putin vote and strengthening the acting president's already good chances of victory.
"At present, Mr. Putin's going to win, maybe even in the first round. But if the war goes badly in Chechnya, and economists in Moscow say there's a fiscal crisis looming in Russia in March or April, these things might harm him ... [but] any betting man would put money on Putin."
McCauley said Putin's maneuvering this week will bring about cooperation between the Kremlin and the Duma, something rarely seen under former President Boris Yeltsin.
Since Yeltsin crushed the pro-communist coup attempt in 1993, Communist lawmakers dominating the Duma had seldom cooperated with the Kremlin.
"The Communists hated Yeltsin because he'd used violence against them," he said. "[Yeltsin] did do deals in the Duma but there was no lasting relationship."
'The Communists now presumably will get tax concessions in their regions as part of the deal."
Just before he prompted the walk-out by doing the deal with the Communists, Putin had told lawmakers he needed "the widest support base in the State Duma."
While Russia's president holds most power, the Duma ratifies treaties, votes on prime ministers and, crucially, approves the national budget.
McCauley told CNSNews.com that despite this week's developments, Putin could not afford to alienate the liberal-centrist forces.
"He needs these groups for his economic policy, to attract foreign capital. If the liberal market economists are against him, it's going to make his life very difficult.
"He has to arrive at some accommodation with them all, because he can't have [them] barking at his heels. It's bad for the image of Russia; it's bad for foreign investment."
McCauley predicted Putin would try to "be everything to everyone" until March 26, presenting a reasonable face. After his expected election, however, Putin would pursue a "much more state-dominated economy."
The West, he said, had "nothing to worry about now," but after the election, "they're going to face a very tough Russia - Russia's really going to push its national interests."
US State Department spokesman James Rubin told a press briefing Wednesday the administration would judge Putin and the Duma on their actions and not on this week's "maneuvering."
"We're going to judge the Duma and the Russian political system by the legislation they pass and the actions they take, not by the purported alignments, which would require us to make judgments about the internal domestic politics of Russia," he said.
"The fact that the communists have a role in the Duma does not mean that Mr. Putin is unable to move forward on his stated support for continued economic reforms and strengthening democratic institutions in Russia. We will have to see."