Yeltsin's Bumbling Foes

Boris Yeltsin has done it again. Just when everyone in Russia and the West thought he was history as an effective politician, the ailing and unpopular Russian president orchestrated another tactical victory against his enemies.

Two weeks ago, Yeltsin looked certain to be impeached by the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. His main political rival, then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, was the most popular political figure in Russia and regarded as perhaps the leading presidential candidate. With Primakov solidly allied with the Russian Communist Party, it looked like Yeltsin's worst nightmare was about to come true. But judging from his bold decision to remove Primakov, Yeltsin is not quite ready to fade from Russia's political scene.

Yeltsin's firing of Primakov had inched Russia closer to a constitutional crisis. If the Duma had impeached Yeltsin and also rejected his nominee for prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, the Russian Constitution is silent on what should have happened next. Many had worried that Yeltsin might try to resolve the impasse through extraconstitutional means: surrounding the parliament building with troops in a replay of the violent confrontation he and the legislative branch had in October 1993. Thankfully, push did not come to shove, and the parliament backed down.

Days before the impeachment vote, nearly every analyst of Russian affairs expected the article accusing Yeltsin of waging an illegal war in Chechnya to pass. Yet, the Communist-dominated Duma couldn't muster the necessary two-thirds vote to pass any of the five impeachment articles. Then, less than a week later, legislators overwhelmingly approved Yeltsin's nominee for prime minister.

In virtually assuring that he will serve out his term, Yeltsin severely weakened Primakov's chances of becoming his successor and thrust Stepashin into the presidential race. Only a brilliant political strategist could imagine transforming Stepashin the police chief into Stepashin the presidential candidate in just 12 months. Yet, in light of what the Yeltsin team - and especially Anatoly Chubais - accomplished in the last two weeks, do not be surprised if Stepashin makes it to the second round of next year's presidential vote.

Given Yeltsin's minimalist record of achievement in recent years, his poor health and abysmal job-approval ratings (estimated at 2 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent), he could only have achieved his latest political victory if he faced an even weaker foe. He did.

For years, Russia's Communists have been handed issues that would have assured political success for anyone else. Yeltsin attacked the White House, where Russia's parliament was then housed, in 1993, oversaw the deaths of 100 ,000 of his own citizens in a fruitless and tragic war in Chechnya and presided over one of the greatest economic depressions in modern history, including, most recently, the financial meltdown in August 1998. Yet, despite his record, the Communists have been unable to remove Yeltsin from power either through the ballot box or impeachment.

The Communists also have proved inept or unwilling to represent the interests of their natural constituencies: workers and pensioners. Russia's Constitution substantially limits the powers of Parliament, the one political institution the Communists dominate. Yet, the Communists have not even taken advantage of their limited constitutional powers to deliver for their supporters. Every year, they allow Yeltsin's budgets to slide through largely intact. With one exception, the opposition-dominated parliament has signed off on all of Yeltsin's candidates for prime minister. On foreign-policy issues, the Russian opposition has virulently criticized Yeltsin's acceptance of the expansion of NATO and its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. But it has never managed to translate passionate rhetoric into real influence.

From August 1998 until last week, the Communists had their best opportunity to influence Russian politics after their candidate, Primakov, became prime minister against Yeltsin's wishes. Upon becoming prime minister, Primakov invited a Communist Party member, Yury Maslyukov, to become his economic tsar. Rhetorically, Primakov and Maslyukov promised to reverse radical economic reforms, raise pensions and wages and curtail the activities of Western agents of influence - the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, most notably. They also talked of making room in the jails for economic criminals and restoring state control over the economy.

In practice, Primakov and his government pursued none of these policies. Through inaction rather than intention, Primakov's government proved to be as fiscally conservative and monetarily stringent as previous reform governments. Instead of chasing the IMF out of Russia, Primakov continued to negotiate with this "tool of imperialism'' and even agreed to introduce a package of legislation recommended by the IMF.

The Primakov era might have been the last hurrah for the Communist Party. The failed impeachment vote demoralized and humiliated it. Party members' approval of Stepashin showed they cared more about holding on to their offices, dachas and free travel than to their principles.

Tired of Yeltsin and his policies, but disappointed in the Communists, voters in the next election might turn to new electoral options such as Yury Luzhkov's Fatherland or Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko. Paradoxically, Kremlin strategists may have orchestrated a remarkable tactical victory by marginalizing the Communist's strongest presidential contender, Primakov - but simultaneously strengthened new opposition contenders for president.

Michael McFaul is a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.