Monarchist backs liberal tycoon
Under normal circumstances, the news that film director and actor Nikita Mikhalkov was traveling to Karachai-Cherkessia to promote his movie "The Barber of Siberia" would have aroused little interest.
But when such a visit coincides with the dying days of an election campaign, and the main candidate in the district is none other than influential tycoon Boris Berezovsky, eyebrows are raised.
Mikhalkov's fans were no doubt confused - after all, Berezovsky's reputation as an insidious member of the Kremlin team is now legendary. Not exactly the best company for, rhetorically at least, the orthodox monarchist Mikhalkov.
But the hopes of the director's supporters - that the reports were simply misinformation - were dashed when Mikhalkov confirmed the trip last Thursday during a debate with Sergei Kiriyenko.
Mikhalkov's explanation for the visit looked particularly lame. It boiled down to something like: "Berezovsky is a battler and already a part of mainstream Russian politics, so give him a voice in the Duma."... and ..."Everyone attacks Berezovsky by day, but they all seek his advice at night, so let's stop the hypocrisy."
But while his fans were shocked by the director's move, rumormongers, who are surprised by little in Russian politics, searched for the real reasons.
The names of Mikhalkov and Berezovsky were first linked last winter - at that time Berezovsky was believed to be the main instigator of the idea of "Nikita, our future president." The discussions of the film director as a possible presidential contender also helped attract additional attention to the premier of "The Barber of Siberia." Rumor has it that Berezovsky also had his own interest in promoting the film, as he was one of its financiers.
An informed source said Mikhalkov and Berezovsky recently became even closer when the tycoon bought a dacha neighboring the director's in the prestigious Nikolina Gora, near Moscow. In any event, the bonds of neighborly friendliness were hardly the reason for the director's visit to Karachai-Cherkassia - the effect of such public support for Berezovsky on Mikhalkov's reputation meant more must have been at stake.
Most agreed that Mikhalkov was probably repaying some sort of debt to the mercurial tycoon.
P.S. In Karachai-Cherkessia, Berezovsky has once again demonstrated his political prowess, or at least the degree of his influence. Nobody is yet sure why, but - just three days before the Duma vote - Berezovsky's most serious (and successful) challenger, Viktor Savelyev, dropped out of the race....
New challenge for Vyakhirev
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week threatened to fire powerful Gazprom chief Rem Vyakhirev if he failed to improve gas supplies to the internal market, according to rumormongers. Vyakhirev's position as chief of the Executive Board of Gazprom has always appeared unassailable, because dismissing him requires the unanimous approval of the board, including Vyakhirev himself.
Although the CEO has experienced plenty of heat from governments in the past, this last threat appears to be particularly dangerous.
Putin's steely glare is fearsome enough, but what he says also usually comes to pass - at least when he really wants it to. Wagging tongues suggest that the long-held appetite of the Kremlin's inhabitants for Gazprom has not abated - and that they are behind this latest threat.
The question now is what best suits Putin in all of this.
Whatever the case, Vyakhirev certainly left himself exposed at the meeting in Putin's office to talk about fuel and energy issues.
Instead of working out concrete ways to provide heating and electricity through winter, the meeting degenerated into a war of words between UES Chief Anatoly Chubais and Vyakhirev about responsibility for an old problem - mutual nonpayment and lack of supplies. But it seems Vyakhirev did not catch the drift of the meeting when, forgetting that Chubais is almost a sacred cow for Putin, he began attacking the electricity boss. Meanwhile, most of those present, including Chubais, were blaming Vyakhirev for the current difficulties.
Putin brought the discussion back on track, but set the provision of adequate domestic gas supplies as Vyakhirev's personal responsibility.