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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Decision to March: Yeltsin's Rubicon

While the bullets fly in Chechnya and most of Russia's political establishment is up in arms against him, President Boris Yeltsin, the man at the eye of the storm, has kept silent and stayed in a hospital bed recovering from a minor nose operation.

For many observers the decision to send troops into Chechnya, arguably the riskiest move of Yeltsin's presidency, marks the moment Yeltsin has finally crossed a political Rubicon and abandoned the liberal forces he has relied on since 1989.

The most eloquent proof of this has been the cloak of secrecy with which Yeltsin has surrounded himself. The president has literally cut himself off from his one-time democratic allies.

Yegor Gaidar, once Yeltsin's prime minister and the leader of Russia's largest reformist party, said Sunday that "for the first time in several years" he had failed to get through to the president on the telephone. In another telling incident the special government telephone lines in the parliamentary offices of two ex-Yeltsin loyalists, Sergei Yushenkov and Mikhail Poltoranin, were cut off Sunday.

Some analysts say Yeltsin's operation was a convenient cover, allowing him to lie low and not face public and political ire over Chechnya.

Yevgeny Krasnikov, a political reporter for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, wrote sardonically Wednesday that "only the lazy are not talking at the moment about the nose septum which cut the president off from his people."

Instead of his old friends, Yeltsin's liberal critics say, the president is now depending on a "party of war" consisting of the "power ministers" Pavel Grachev, Sergei Stepashin and Viktor Yerin, as well as Nationalities Minister Nikolai Yegorov and the chairman of his Security Council and old friend, Oleg Lobov.

The political background for the military intervention, one political analyst said, is a tide of events at home and abroad which have eroded the liberal base on which Yeltsin was elected president in 1991.

"Yeltsin's analysts will have told him he could not win the presidential elections in 1996," said Sergei Markov, professor of politics at Moscow University. "So he had to change the situation. A small victorious war in the Caucasus can show he is a strong president. But he can also use a defeat to rally people around him and use it as an excuse to impose more order in the country."

Markov said incidents such as the military crackdown in Chechnya or the raid on the headquarters of Most Bank last month were symptoms of the "mild authoritarianism" which was now more and more Yeltsin's style.

However, the divorce with the lib erals may carry its own immediate dangers, in particular a climate of secrecy in the Kremlin in which no one can be called to account for risky decisions.

Not even Kremlin insiders, for example, have established who was the author of the order to invade Chechnya on Sunday.

Over the last few days the more media-friendly liberal Kremlin faces, such as Yeltsin's political aide Georgy Satarov or his adviser on ethnic policy Emil Pain, have all but admitted they have been left in the dark.

Pain said Sunday that he and other advisers had drawn up the draft of a decree setting out a compromise plan for Chechnya the day before but he was not even sure if Yeltsin had seen it.

"I cannot absolutely say who took the decision," to send in the troops, Pain said.

Otto Latsis, the political commentator for Izvestia and member of Yeltsin's presidential council who has stoutly opposed military intervention in Chechnya, said Wednesday there was a danger that Yeltsin was not fully in control of the decision-making process and was letting himself be manipulated.

"It may be that they are reporting to him only in general terms," Latsis said of the people closest to Yeltsin. "The trouble is that it's not that a procedure for taking decisions is being broken, but that there is no procedure at all."

Latsis said that, in his own hunt to find who had taken the decision for Sunday's intervention, he had talked to Yeltsin's No. 1 aide, Viktor Ilyushin, on Tuesday and Ilyushin had said he was not consulted on the decision to send in the troops on Sunday.

He said Ilyushin had not seen Yeltsin personally since his operation Saturday and had only kept in touch by telephone.

Yeltsin did receive a personal visit Sunday from Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, who was appointed head of the Russian government's operational command handling the crisis.

But Latsis said it would be very difficult to pin down who had been the key influence on Yeltsin.

"It may be Korzhakov or it may not be one person," Latsis said, referring to Alexander Korzhakov, the head of Yeltsin's bodyguard and his closest friend, who also has links with Soskovets.