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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsins Change of Script

Yegor Gaidar had dreamed of a different kind of retirement. Thirteen months ago, the newly appointed leader of the Russian reform team said in one of his first interviews: "I would like to leave in a calm and dignified manner. Let's imagine, for example, that there is a vote of no confidence on the discussion of the budget for 1993".

If the reason for the government's retirement is disagreement with the parliament on the budget, then everything in the country is going fairly well. The political situation is calm enough that parliament can concentrate on detailed economic strategy. This means that the parliamentary power struggle is within the bounds of civilized rivalry.

Gaidar's hopes for a dignified retirement were dashed. Not one of the conditions mentioned above was met in the deep political crisis that engulfed Russia.

The bitter struggle in the Kremlin went on for two weeks, crowned by the president's equally bitter sacrifice.

There is no basis for reading a carefully planned scheme or subtle strategy into the sudden decision of President Boris Yeltsin to replace the prime minister. The most reliable sources on Staraya Ploshchad confirm that the incredible procedure for selecting the head of government, developed in the course of consultations with the speaker of parliament, had as its only goal the retention of Gaidar's team in power.

On Saturday Yeltsin was offered a detailed scenario for the final stage of the Congress. The president was supposed to select five names from the list of candidates proposed by the parliament factions.

He was to leave on the list any two candidates from the opposition. The third would be Gaidar. The others would be Vladimir Shumeiko and Vladimir Kadannikov. Members of the government assured the president they were ready to continue working under either of these last two, and Gaidar himself announced that he had nothing against a transfer to the post of first deputy prime minister.

No matter what the outcome of the parliament vote, one of the government's candidates would have be in the final three. He would then be proposed for election. If he succeeds -- great. If not, then he gets named acting prime minister.

On Saturday evening Boris Yeltsin expressed full approval of this plan. At the president's traditional Sunday afternoon dinner with the cabinet the details were hashed over, possible variations of the Congres's reactions were worked out, and coordinated responses developed.

The president and members of the cabinet could be sure of support from Valery Zorkin, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, who was ready to ensure the fulfillment of the conditions of the agreements which he had mediated.

On Monday morning Boris Yeltsin set off along the chosen path, but at the final moment he veered sharply off course.

The explanation for the decision he made lies in psychology rather than politics: If the president had followed the government's plan he would have been too indebted to Gaidar's team.

From the moment this team had come to power, it was an indisputable fact that support for the president was the only source of political influence in the government, the only guarantee of its stability, and the only defense against the aggressive opposition. But lately the situation had begun to change.

Several figures in the cabinet demonstrated clear aspirations to independence from the head of state. Chief among these was, of course, Gaidar himself. But Anatoly Chubais, Alexander Shokhin, Andrei Nechayev and Pyotr Aven also began to take more independent and aggressive actions.

The position of Vladimir Shumeiko underwent an unexpected metamorphosis: he became one of the most vocal and active defenders of Gaidar's reform strategy.

Sergei Shakhrai, who had just returned to the government in a key position, played his role brilliantly: his presence at the negotiating table on Dec. 11 to a great extent guaranteed the success of the consultations.

By the end of the Seventh Congress the political potential of this new generation, which had come to maturity within the government, had grown to such an extent that, evidently, the president had begun to get nervous.

It is not just that Yegor Gaidar's report on the progress of economic reform compared extremely favorably to the colorless speech given by Yeltsin. The more important thing is that the Congress began to look like more of a failure for the president than the government.

President Yeltsin suffered a complete rout in the first stage of the debates, when the fate of his special powers was being decided and amendments to the constitution were being discussed. Yeltsin's risky appeal to the nation on Dec. 10 turned into a series of gross miscalculations.

Sergei Shakhrai, Yegor Gaidar, the united government team and many supporters in parliament tried to save an almost hopeless situation. The president could have left the Congress a winner, but he would have known that the victory laurels did not belong to him.

No sacrifice seemed too extreme when it seemed likely that the balance of power within the administration could tip: Gaidar's cabinet could become the real leader of reform, and he, the president, would have to take a back seat.

And even if this was just a momentary suspicion, Yeltsin preferred to follow a principle as old as politics itself: "Beat your own people, so that others might be afraid".

Sergei Parkhomenko is a freelance journalist living in Moscow.