Former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko can hardly be suspected of stupidity for running for the post of Moscow mayor and challenging the powerful Yuri Luzhkov-Much less, irresponsibility.
The young reformer obviously has political reasons for entering his seemingly hopeless fight and must have some backing from authorities and big business.
Is it possible that Kiriyenko and his team developed their idea on their own? Probably. Moscow might appear to be a very attractive, unspoiled field for a young politician to try himself. Sources close to the Kiriyenko camp confirm that hypothesis.
But it may be tempting to use a little reverse psychology. No one has ever tried to tackle Luzhkov, a seemingly untouchable incumbent, so why not play a hero?
Even the most devoted love-in this case of Muscovites for their mayor-has room for dissent. That, apparently, is the strategic basis for the Kiriyenko team's plan. There is nothing new in trying to make use of protest votes. And whom else can Kiriyenko draw upon but well-fed and prosperous Muscovites?
But Kiriyenko is not just betting on a minor protest. He's looking for an overwhelming one.
The former prime minister is the first to dare invade Moscow's kingdom and contest its mayoral elections, which in the capital have long ceased to be a shining example of democracy.
Moscow's withering of democracy has coincided directly with Luzhkov's period of rule.
Sources in Kiriyenko's camp say the boss is under no illusions about the chances of winning. He is almost certain that he will lose to Luzhkov.
Nevertheless, Kiriyenko's advisors note that the attempt will in itself be beneficial to democracy in Russia.
For one, Moscow provides a remarkable opportunity to popularize, and also advertise, Kiriyenko's movement.
Kiriyenko plans to captivate Muscovites with the idea of a "new conservatism," combining moderate liberalism with a socialist nostalgia, or something to that effect. But while the platform is being hammered out, Kiriyenko is avoiding giving details.
At this point, he only admits the concept of reforms promoted by Russia's democrats is no longer feasible. Kiriyenko argues there is a need to find a palatable image for "Russia's capitalism"-an ideological doctrine that would allow him to distance himself from the mistakes-real and perceived-made during the decade of President Boris Yeltsin's rule.
Second, Moscow has never been offered an alternative to Luzhkov. The mayor is a strong leader, winning more than 90 percent of the vote in the last election. Any rival would be happy to take 40 percent of the vote from Luzhkov.
Kiriyenko might find support among the middle class, small and medium-size business people and corporations fed up with the city's bureaucracy; a political elite tired of having to ingratiate itself with the mayor; and an intelligentsia unhappy with the arbitrariness of public life.
Third, Moscow is an excellent electorate for a dry run to prepare for a future campaign for the presidency.
Fourth, Moscow not only hosts City Hall, but the Kremlin as well. Get the hint?
Those well informed hardly believe Kiriyenko has decided to cross Luzhkov on his own initiative, at least not without some very substantial backing.
One has to bear in mind Russian democracy's specific nature, its subservience to big business and the power of state authority. No one in this country goes into politics without good connections.
Despite his recent sincere efforts on the national stage, Kiriyenko is hardly an exception to the rule. His current public relations team, however independent it might appear, is still heavily dependent on the Kremlin-essentially the presidential administration. The Kremlin has waited a long time to take on the dangerously popular Moscow mayor, but has been short on opportunities. Occasional skirmishes have taken place but never amounted to real battles. Mainly because Luzhkov, although he has been considered a presidential hopeful for some time, has never confirmed his intention to "go for Russia" in public.
Attacking the mayor directly from the Kremlin would only mean acknowledging him as a serious rival to the president, and would inevitably increase Luzhkov's popularity in the wider electorate.
Kiriyenko was summoned to throw down the gauntlet to Luzhkov. His entry into the mayoral race is a trial balloon, an attempt to use a young politician not tainted by corruption as a vehicle to launch a public relations campaign against Luzhkov. A campaign that will not be short of highly charged discrediting evidence on the Moscow city authorities. One can imagine there are stacks of such "sensational" files already waiting to be unwrapped.
The first thing the brave Kiriyenko did upon opening his campaign against Luzhkov was to accuse the Moscow authorities of corruption. "You cannot achieve anything in Moscow unless you resort to bribes," Kiriyenko said.
The Moscow City Duma responded by warning Kiriyenko of the possible legal consequences of such accusations. That was round one.
This is a serious game. The anti-corruption trump card Luzhkov's political opponents intend to play against him-both in the city and presidential elections-is a dangerous one. Dangerous for the Moscow mayor because it is so powerful with the public. Dangerous for Kiriyenko, experts say, because once the young pretender oversteps the mark with denunciations, he may actually get himself killed. Certain people in Kiriyenko's entourage say the former prime minister is aware of the perils.
As for Luzhkov's reaction to the challenge, sources close to the mayor describe it as irritation.
Luzhkov was certainly riled when he appeared before television cameras last week to denounce Kiriyenko - too riled to be taking the challenge as a sober politician would, namely, by ignoring it.
By dismissing Kiriyenko, Luzhkov showed just how seriously he takes himself, acting presidential when it is entirely too soon for him to do so, and quite possibly playing into Kiriyenko's hands.
Analysts also say, however, that Luzhkov still does not regard Kiriyenko as a serious opponent.