Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Pendulum Swings Back

The past few days have been a little like watching two bulldogs fight it out beneath a bed cover. Clearly Boris Yeltsin and Viktor Chernomyrdin were wrestling over who should control the economy in the next cabinet, but as to who was winning and with what tactics -- all one could do was watch the sheet.

The conflict has been fascinating for its own sake. Not so long ago, Chernomyrdin was a figure of fun as prime minister. He had a big title but was hopelessly outflanked by an alliance between Yeltsin and much of the rest of the cabinet, the still substantial remnants of the so-called Gaidar team.

That has all changed since December's elections. Gaidar is out, the team is gone and Chernomyrdin, unelected, has become temporarily indispensable to the president. He offers Yeltsin a vital, supposedly loyal, avenue for compromise with the new State Duma. Over just a few weeks, the puppy has grown teeth.

One sign of Chernomyrdin's rising confidence was the fact that it was his spokesman, not Yeltsin's, who first broke the news on Wednesday that a deal had been struck and that four deputy prime ministers had been nominated.

The spokesman was gratifyingly true to Chernomyrdin's caricature, insisting against all the evidence that no, there was no "crisis" in the government. The president and prime minister were in total agreement, on everything. It was the classic reaction of the Soviet bureaucrat: "Vsyo khorosho." Everything was fine.

On Thursday, however, Yeltsin's newly prominent right-hand man, Viktor Ilyushin, said rather tartly that the prime minister's spokesman had jumped the gun and nothing was yet certain. When spokesmen fight in public, you know the tussle beneath the sheets is getting bloody. The main bone of contention between Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin was Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov, who was holding out for terms of employment under which he could still hope to impose the tight financial policy that is his reason for being in politics.

The subtext: Like Gaidar, Fyodorov was refusing to become window dressing for the West. If Chernomyrdin was going to take over economic strategy, let it be, but not with free-market reformers nominally at the helm to take the fall when inflation began to spin out of control.

There was no doubt that Fyodorov's intransigence was the problem. But if anyone had doubts, the spectacle of Russia's finance minister being denied access to the Kremlin Wednesday because he had "not been invited" to a regular session of the Security Council, of which he was a member, was enough to erase it.

We are, in the end, still kremlinologists, reading the tea leaves of who attends what meetings or issues which important statement to gauge the struggles for power that go on, as they have for centuries, inside the Kremlin walls.

The difference between now and the Soviet era is that the tea leaves are the size of bay leaves. Wednesday's Security Council meeting was a Kremlin-watching classic. As usual, the opening of the meeting was televised for viewers to see their president in control and his loyal aides aligned on each side of the table.

Who was invited? There was Chernomyrdin, his friend Oleg Soskovets, Oleg Lobov an ex-Communist Party official from Yeltsin's hometown of Sverdlovsk who heads the Security Council, the heads of external and internal security, Yevgeny Primakov and Nikolai Golushko, Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kokoshin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

Chernomyrdin was right. Russia's age of romanticism is over. Apart from Koz-yrev, where were all the 30-something liberals, academics, radical newspaper editors and other demokraty with whom Yeltsin surrounded himself after the coup of August 1991? Briefly relegated to the shadows after the failed coup, the stolid overlords of the former Soviet Union are back on top.

This is true of the president's staff as well as the new cabinet. Gennady Burbulis, a former philosophy professor and radical democrat with a Bolshevik style, began as Yeltsin's number one adviser. He is now out of favor. So too is Mikhail Poltoranin, the equally aggressive former editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda.

More recently, the star of Yeltsin's liberal chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, who used to head a research institute, has also fallen. Now it is Ilyushin, a former Sverd-lovsk city Communist Party chief, who runs the show in the Kremlin.

Doubtless the romantics of Russia's leadership -- people like Yegor Gaidar and Ella Pamfilova, who were spawned by the euphoria of August 1991 and fervently believed in a miracle change for Russia -- will reemerge in new roles. But for now, they are history.