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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Boris Yeltsin's Next Step

The Chechen conflict has brought Russia to a state of severe political, economic and military crisis. The government's authority has fallen sharply and Russian democracy itself seems to be in danger. Are the bureaucrats who planned the Chechen operation to blame for this? Certainly. However, it should be noted that since about 1989, Russia (earlier, the Soviet Union) has been in a state of permanent crisis in all areas. An economic crisis leads to a political crisis, which in turn leads to a new economic crisis ...


Throughout the so-called reform period, Russia has been unable to create a viable political system. In the place of the old totalitarian system, a self-destructing system has emerged which almost automatically throws the country into crisis at any provocation. This is why the common rumor that the Chechen crisis was intentionally set off by some "third power" in order to push President Boris Yeltsin aside seems unconvincing. We are not talking here about a cabal, but about a systemic crisis of governmental power.


The reason for this situation may be that in Russia (and in all the other post-Soviet nations, except the Baltic states) there was no radical replacement of the political elite to correspond to the replacement of the communist regime. Instead, there was a sort of compromise between the old and the new politicians. As a result, since 1989 the country has not been striving to create a democratic system of government, but to re-create a variant of the old Politburo -- some sort of political organ that would stand above the executive and legislative branches. In the short history of "democratic" Russia, we have already had the first Security Council headed by Gennady Burbulis, the Presidential Council, the Council of the Heads of the Republics and so on.


Today, it appears that the search is over. During the Chechen crisis, we have finally seen the formation of a plainly extra-constitutional organ which produces the most important political decisions and imposes them on the government and the parliament. This is the new Security Council. As a result, the process of forming a pyramidal governmental structure with the bureaucracy at the base and the president at the top can be considered complete.


However, even though he now finds himself at the top of the pyramid, Yeltsin must now be worried: getting to the top is hard, but getting down again is harder still. Also, this is a space for only one person -- the number of points of support are reduced to a minimum and disaster will result if any one of them gives way.


It would appear that Yeltsin has felt this danger at least since the fall, when he cut off an attempt by members of his inner circle -- who had even managed to push aside such influential figures as top aide Viktor Ilyushin and chief of staff Sergei Filatov -- to gain control of the government. Rather, to be more precise, they sought control over the energy sector of the economy, hoping to replace Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin with First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets. By doing so, though, Yeltsin did not resolve the basic situation. He simply dragged out the process.


In response to such attempts to monopolize influence over the president, we have seen a certain consolidation of political forces, even approaching a political union between the Duma faction Russia's Choice and people like Filatov and, even, Chernomyrdin (notwithstanding the fact that the prime minister holds diametrically opposed views to those of Russia's Choice concerning the development of the energy sector). Some observers go so far as to see a possible rapprochement between Filatov and Ilyushin.


It seems that Yeltsin has only three possible moves at this point. First, he could remove Sosko-vets and Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and demonstratively demote his security chief Alexander Korzhakov and Security Council Chairman Oleg Lobov. This would have to be accompanied by renewed ties with Russia's Choice, the only reform-minded party that has not irrevocably broken with Yeltsin, and new efforts to advance economic reform.


Naturally, this plan would be difficult for Yeltsin. Appointing a new defense minister would mean losing much of his control over the army. Further, a new union with Russia's Choice would have to be predicated on a concession from Yeltsin to reform the government. Finally, moving forward on reform would further erode Yeltsin's public support.


Renewed ties to Yeltsin would be no less difficult for Russia's Choice. Tactically speaking, Yegor Gaidar is doing the right thing by stating that, under the right circumstances, he is prepared to back Yeltsin again. By doing so, he may well keep the inner circle from seizing power. However, returning to Yeltsin would most likely condemn Gaidar's party to defeat in the next elections.


Yeltsin's second way out of the present situation would be for him to put himself completely in the hands of the "party of war." This would mean cancelling the 1996 election and, essentially, declaring himself a dictator. Naturally, this scheme is both difficult and dangerous. Removing Filatov and Ilyushin and replacing Chernomyrdin with Soskovets would leave Yeltsin completely at the mercy of his advisers. However, this group does not have any political base. It does not have the support of the government apparatus or the army, and therefore is not in a position to establish a totalitarian regime. This variant can only mean a period of unpredictable political instability for Russia.


Third, Yeltsin might lose control of the situation altogether and real authority would then pass to the "party of war." If this happened, though, the apparent unity of that group would evaporate. None of its members is a clear leader, and just who on the Russian political scene might step in to fill that vacuum remains a mystery.





Sergei Chugayev is a political commentator for Izvestia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.