#11 - JRL 7169
May 6, 2003
SPS Picks Kokh as Election Chief
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
Alfred Kokh, one of the most colorful and controversial figures in both business and politics, will undertake next Monday the daunting task of managing the parliamentary election campaign for the liberal Union of Right Forces party.
"It will be a challenge," Kokh said in a telephone interview Monday.
The leadership of Union of Right Forces, or SPS, late last week appointed Kokh as the party's campaign manager for State Duma elections in December.
Kokh, an aggressive businessman and longtime associate of SPS co-founder Anatoly Chubais, is spearheading the campaign at a time when its chances of getting into the Duma are uncertain, with its ratings hovering around the 5 percent threshold. SPS has suffered a string of defections since its surprise success in 1999 elections, the latest of which was in March when the head of its executive council, Eldar Yanbukhtin, left to become the deputy secretary of pro-Kremlin United Russia's executive council. Yanbukhtin oversaw SPS's finances and campaign plans.
Kokh said Monday, however, that he was certain SPS could make it into the Duma in December.
"They say we only have two parties in Russia -- United Russia and the Communists," he said. "Well, if anybody tried to convince me that all of the interests and preferences of the people are spread between these two parties, I would disagree. This means there is a place for SPS."
Kokh said his candidacy was proposed by SPS leader Boris Nemtsov and supported by all senior SPS officials, downplaying media reports that his appointment signaled a weakening of Nemtsov, who epitomizes the oppositionist wing within SPS, and a strengthening of Chubais, who o-Kremlin stance.
Gazeta and Kommersant reported Monday that Nemtsov also nominated several other candidates for the post, including Deputy Press Minister Vladimir Grigoryev and former deputy NTV head Rafael Akopov. But Kokh won as a person with not only strong management skills and ties to big business but a record as an SPS ally, the newspapers said.
"Kokh is a real fighter, an excellent manager and absolutely right-wing in his ideology," Deputy Duma Speaker Irina Khakamada said on Ekho Moskvy.
Kokh got a chance to showcase his management skills when, as head of Gazprom-Media in 2001, he wrangled control of NTV television and its sister companies from Vladimir Gusinsky. He quit the post in October 2001 when it became clear that Gazprom would not sell its media assets as earlier promised.
Kokh began his career working with Chubais on privatization programs in St. Petersburg. He helped oversee the notorious loans-for-shares auctions of 1995 and 1996 when he worked first as a deputy state property minister and then state property minister. Disgraced after the disastrous sale of a stake in Svyazinvest in 1997 and under fire for allegedly accepting a bribe in the form of an inflated book fee, Kokh retreated from public life to run the Montes Auri investment fund.
Kokh attempted to win a seat on the Federation Council last year but withdrew his candidacy after the vote in the Leningrad region's legislative assembly was challenged in court. The challenge was seen as a sign that he was not in the Kremlin's good graces.
Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said it was unclear whether Kokh would be able to improve SPS's electoral chances. He said SPS was seriously wounded by the defection of Yanbukhtin -- a former advertising executive who previously worked for Fatherland-All Russia and the Communists -- and that he was privy to "many financial secrets" in SPS.
Petrov said SPS leaders chose Kokh's political loyalty and management skills over his tarnished image, which Kokh "cynically uses to his advantage."
"SPS has enough people on board who are vulnerable to criticism during the election campaign," Petrov said, referring primarily to Chubais. "Kokh adds to this burden."
Viktor Peshkov, the Communist Party's campaign manager, said Monday that Kokh's appointment would not affect the Communists' bid. "We are fighting for completely different electorates," he said by telephone. "We don't overlap at all ideologically."
It appears that SPS's main struggle will be with Yabloko, which the Kremlin reportedly favors over SPS, and the liberal wing of United Russia.
Yabloko spokesman Sergei Loktionov said Monday that his party has not made a final decision on who will run its campaign. Currently, Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin is in charge of campaign media affairs, and staffer Daniel Meshcheryakov runs the "field work" with voters, he said.
Kokh said he is on vacation and will start his new job next Monday.