Perils of Yeltsin's Passion

In the explosion of rumors, theories and explanations that purported to account for President Boris Yeltsin's dismissal of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister last week, most sought to reconstruct a grand strategy or intricate conspiracy that informed Yeltsin's decision.

So, for those in the banking world, Chernomyrdin's removal served the interests of tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Menatep head Mikhail Khordokovsky, given that the government shakeup improved their chances of obtaining a controlling share in the upcoming privatization of the coveted Rosneft. For Kremlin watchers, Chernomyrdin's dismissal served the interests of Yeltsin's chief of staff Valentin Yumashev and the president's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko (and Berezovsky again). For those in the political-consulting world, Yeltsin's move served the interests of an unnamed successor. By removing Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin cleared away a sure-bet loser for 2000 and strengthened the chances of finding a new presidential candidate from the "party of power."

In the end, all of these interests may be served by the government shake-up. It is fundamentally wrong, however, to infer that Yeltsin did what he did to serve these strategic interests. On the contrary, his decision to remove Chernomyrdin and name Sergei Kiriyenko was driven by passion and intuition. This is classic Yeltsin -- act impulsively first, create a crisis situation and then figure out a plan to get out of the crisis later. Yeltsin's uncanny ability to emerge victorious from such situations gives him the confidence to continue acting in this way. Yeltsin does not fear uncertainty; he savors it.

Yeltsin unexpectedly dismissed Chernomyrdin because he grew tired of everyone talking about the White House as the new center of power in Russia and the Kremlin as the old center. In one dramatic decree, he demonstrated to all that he is still the most important political figure in Russia today.

The potential negative consequences of his choice of Kiriyenko are minor. In a worst-case scenario, the State Duma could vote him down and Russia would have to endure early parliamentary elections. The potential upside of the choice is also minor. Kiriyenko may provide the stimulus to jump-start "reform"; any positive change will be a marked improvement over the years of stagnation under Chernomyrdin.

The important consequences of Yeltsin's decision, however, are not in the short term. Rather, the repercussions of Yeltsin's bold move last week will only become apparent in the run-up to the presidential election. With one decree, Yeltsin radically transformed the configuration of the next presidential race.

When Chernomyrdin was prime minister, he was the unquestioned leading presidential candidate from the party of power for 2000. The banking alliance among Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Khordokovsky, and Alexander Smolensky had gravitated to Chernomyrdin's camp, joining Gazprom as firm economic backers of the prime minister. Potential rivals to Chernomyrdin within the government such as First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov also seemed increasingly resigned to step aside and let Chernomyrdin run in 2000.

Early last week, many within the party of power were relieved to see Chernomyrdin go, given that few believed he could win a free and fair presidential election. By the end of the week, however, many of these same people also realized that they had no obvious new candidate who could both represent the interests of the current party of power and win the next election.

The party of power's disarray stands in sharp contrast to the order and strategic planning that Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and his team have undertaken in preparations for the presidential race. Without question, Luzhkov was the big winner of last week's government shake-up. He is the man to beat in the next presidential race.

Luzhkov has all the necessary components to win in 2000. He controls a national television network and is buying up regional stations. Although many pollsters argue that a Muscovite cannot be elected president, Luzhkov and his advisers have carefully cultivated the mayor's image as a "regional" leader who does battle with the center just like any other governor. His brand of ethnic nationalism combined with his protectionist rhetoric on economic policy appeals to a wide section of the Russian electorate. Unlike any other candidate, Luzhkov appeals to democrats, communists and nationalists alike.

Many in the West think that a Luzhkov victory in 2000 would represent continuity and stability. This is a wrong assumption. Luzhkov is the sole political figure today with the will and capacity to change fundamentally the rules of the game, both in politics and economics. He is the one candidate who might unravel earlier privatization deals, introduce protectionist and statist economic policies or play the ethnic card regarding disputes with Ukrainians in Crimea or Latvians in Latvia.

If preservation of the current political and economic order is the ultimate objective in the next presidential election, even Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and retired General Alexander Lebed might be less threatening candidates than Luzhkov. In a run-off between Zyuganov and Luzhkov in the second round of the next presidential vote, it is not out of the question that the current party of power would support Zyuganov.

So, the short-term consequences of Yeltsin's move may be positive, while the long-term consequences may be more dire. We must remember, however, that we only have seen Yeltsin's first passionate move. Having knocked all the pieces off the chess board, Yeltsin and his advisers are now slowly putting the pieces back on the table in a more strategic manner. Although he initiated this new period of political uncertainty with no strategic vision at all, Yeltsin and his team still have two more years to develop a winning game plan.

Michael McFaul is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.