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Primakov exit leaves Putin in command

Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov dropped out of the presidential race Friday, deserting a field that is already overwhelmingly dominated by acting President Vladimir Putin.

Primakov, 70, a senior statesman and leader of the foundering centrist opposition, said his decision to withdraw from the March 26 elections was based on a conclusion that Russia still had a long way to go before becoming a civil society and a true democracy.

Just six months ago, Primakov was a strong favorite to succeed President Boris Yeltsin. But Putin, 47, who became prime minister in August and was named acting president after Yeltsin's surprise resignation on Dec. 31, has soared in the polls, largely because of his tough stance on Russia's war in Chechnya but also because of his relative youth and more energetic brand of leadership.

On the eve of parliamentary elections in December, Primakov tried to invigorate the chances of his Fatherland-All Russia party by announcing his candidacy for president. But after a series of attacks by Kremlin-friendly television stations, Primakov's party was left in the dust in the elections just as the Putin bandwagon got rolling.

"I will not conceal the fact that this was a difficult decision," Primakov said Friday, noting that he had received thousands of letters of support. "One would think that this would have confirmed me in my decision. However, during the elections, and as I began work in the parliament, I sense how far our society is from being a civil society, and from a true democracy.

"I do not think that this situation can change radically in a few months."

On the opening day of the new parliament last month, a pro-Putin party, known as Unity, allied itself with the opposition Communists and took control of the parliament's top leadership positions. One goal of the maneuver, analysts said, was to block Primakov from being elected speaker, a post that would have given him national exposure.

Shoved onto the sidelines, Primakov joined Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal democratic Yabloko party, and Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads a right-wing party, in staging a walkout from the parliament. They have since agreed to return Feb. 9.

With Primakov's formal withdrawal Friday, Putin is left with two major opponents in the coming elections: Yavlinsky and Gennadi Zyuganov, leader of the Russian Communist Party. According to a recent poll by a top Russian polling agency, Public Opinion, 52 percent supported Putin for president, 15 percent backed Zyuganov, 9 percent backed Primakov and 5 percent preferred Yavlinsky.

As the war in Chechnya moves into a new phase, Putin's ratings may be getting shaky. Another public opinion poll, by the Vtsiom agency, shows his popularity dropping seven points to 48 percent in the last week.

As the battle for Grozny, the Chechen capital, continues, the Russian military has been more forthcoming with casualty figures.

New military doctrine

takes a harder line

MOSCOW _ The presidential Security Council on Friday approved a new national military doctrine, which Moscow says is its response to a perceived growing threat from NATO in the West and from Islamic militants in the east.

The adoption of the military doctrine, which must be approved by acting President Vladimir Putin, follows the approval last month of a new national security doctrine that broadened the Kremlin's authority to use nuclear weapons and accused the United States of trying to weaken Russia.

Russia "cannot help noticing changes in the strategy of NATO," Putin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. "We must react appropriately (to avoid) running into surprises."

Russia's new security doctrine allows the country's leaders to use all existing forces "including nuclear weapons" to oppose any attack _ nuclear or conventional _ if other efforts fail to repel the aggressor.