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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What's in a Name? Power

This business of who would get to be a deputy prime minister in Viktor Chernomyrdin's new government has been keeping me awake at night.

That may put me in an exciting obsessive-compulsive group together with train spotters, but the deputy prime minister dispute has dominated the long cabinet reshuffle that at last came to end with the resignation of Boris Fyodorov on Wednesday, and it truly does matter.

On the face of it, "Deputy Prime Minister" 0is just a title. Alexander Shokhin proved in the previous government that being one could be an inglorious affair. Having no ministerial portfolio, his sole responsibility was for foreign debt negotiations -- not a post marked for greatness.

Yet Fyodorov has resigned in part because he lost the title. Sergei Shakhrai is still hesitating over whether to keep his job as nationalities minister, saying that he too needs the additional rank.

One Russian political analyst told me it was foolish to lose even a catnap over the deputy PM squabble. It was all vanity, he said.

And there was something a little peevish about Fyodorov's complaint last weekend that Alexander Zaveryukha, a mere agriculture minister, would get to be one while Fyodorov, a finance minister, would not.

But President Boris Yeltsin, for one, clearly understands the value of the rank. While in general he has left Viktor Chernomyrdin in charge of cutting the government down from 77 to 29 ministries, Yeltsin decreed over the prime minister's head that Anatoly Chubais must be a deputy prime minister.

Knowing that Chernomyrdin is not overly fond of privatization -- he once likened Chubais' program to Stalin's brutal enforced collectivization of the 1930s -- Yeltsin's purpose was clear. By making Chubais a deputy PM, the president has given the program his protection.

This is the heart of the whole deputy PM scam. Chubais will now have a direct telephone line to Boris Yeltsin -- Fyodorov said his line was cut off the moment Chernomyrdin announced that the finance minister would not make it to deputy PM status. Chubais, as a result, will always be able to go over Chernomyrdin's head and appeal directly to the president.

Equally vital, Chubais will have a seat on the government's presidium, the mini-cabinet that meets with Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin once a week. Mere ministers, unless they happen to be the intrinsically powerful ministers for defense, foreign affairs, interior or security, do not.

Chubais also will have a power base. He will have a staff and offices inside the White House to do his bidding. He will have a personal guard and automatic access to Chernomyrdin, rather than having to request an audience from the head of the prime minister's apparat, Vladimir Kvasov.

Yeltsin has been using the post of deputy PM as one of his basic power tools for the past two years.

When his young team of reformers first took over economics and other ministries that had, in Soviet times, either been scorned or -- in the case of the finance ministry -- had not existed, he gave them the added status and staff they needed to be taken seriously.

In April 1992, the deputy PMs were Gennady Burbulis, Yegor Gaidar, Valery Makharadze, Mikhail Poltoranin, Sergei Shakhrai and Alexander Shokhin -- in that order. These special appointments and their trappings represented, it has to be said, a typically Soviet solution for establishing power.

Early in the summer of 1992, when Yeltsin needed to compromise with the then parliament's industrial lobby, he promoted Georgy Khizha and Vladimir Shumeiko to deputy prime ministers. In June, when Yeltsin became worried by the legislature's attacks on Chubais and his privatization program, he made Chubais a deputy PM also.

At the time, Yeltsin was prime minister as well as president. These were his deputies, marked as his men and free to pinch hit for the president in ways that ministers were not.

None of this made for efficient government under the stewardship of Chernomyrdin, because most of the deputy PMs owed their allegiance to Yeltsin and not to the prime minister. As a result Chernomyrdin was outflanked, forced to preside over policies in which he did not really believe.

But the new cabinet has only four deputy prime ministers, three of whom were hand-picked by Chernomyrdin, making for a far more independent government and prime minister. Only Chubais is likely to spend much time on his direct line to the president.