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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Plays Staying Game

President Boris Yeltsin is joining the ranks of the enigmatic tsars of Russian history, the likes of Alexander I and Alexander II, whose souls the historians are still arguing over to this day.

The onetime party chief, party reformer, political exile, populist democrat and reforming autocrat now seems to have run out of ideology altogether.

Only one thing now seems to be on Yeltsin's agenda: survival.

Only Stalin had a keener sense of how to stay in power, one of Yeltsin's most jaundiced critics, the editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vitaly Tretyakov has observed. Several times Yeltsin has virtually been destroyed, but he has found a narrow escape route.

He was finished in 1987, when Gorbachev told him he had no political future. Twice, in 1991 and 1993, he escaped by the skin of his teeth from a putsch and a rebellion.

Yeltsin also has a spectacular ability to part company with people who have become politically unuseful. The number of ex-ministers, ex-advisers and ex-allies he has outlived is enough to fill a small concert hall.

Now Yeltsin may be sewing his parachute to try to escape from the worst crisis of all: in Chechnya.

All the way through, Yeltsin has managed to construct the illusion that he is somehow aloof from the day-to-day running of the crisis. And there is some evidence that the military has taken decisions by itself.

But a string of Kremlin advisers has insisted that Yeltsin is being kept fully informed of what is going on, and there is little reason to doubt them. He has just kept at arm's length from the consequences of it all.

First of all, just before the military operation began, Yeltsin retired to a hospital for a nose operation. One can imagine him telling Pavel Grachev, "You have eight days to finish off Dudayev. Call me when it's all over." Now, when it is still far from over, Grachev will be the man to take the blame.

Now that the hawks are under a political onslaught, Yeltsin is turning back to the pragmatists -- the likes of Viktor Chernomyrdin, Vladimir Shumeiko and Andrei Kozyrev -- men who also have good political radar.

Can Yeltsin survive? In the long term he looks a beaten man, but in the short term the answer is definitely yes.

The parallel is frequently drawn with the last days of Mikhail Gorbachev's regime in 1991. The president, incapacitated or vacillating, is squeezed onto a narrower and narrower political base. He has nothing supporting him except the fact of power itself. He lets the crisis drift toward him, and is overwhelmed.

But that people are making the parallel does not mean that it fits.

The coup plotters of August 1991 were in all the top government offices of Moscow, including Gorbachev's own. They could plan their move in full secrecy on government phone lines and then instantly seize control of the country -- and still they failed.

Compare that with the situation now, when plots and conspiracies are the stuff of debates on prime-time television. Yeltsin is not in an information vacuum. He only needs to open the morning papers to see what is happening. His shadowy guard Alexander Korzhakov is now under a daily searchlight. If anyone tries to make a move against Yeltsin, someone else is bound to tell him about it.

Add to that the fact that there is no one to play the role that Yeltsin himself played in 1991 -- the man on the horizon poised to take power.

There are a number of men who could conceivably beat Yeltsin in a presidential election at the moment -- Grigory Yavlinsky and Alexander Rutskoi come to mind -- but none of them has any support inside the Kremlin.

The only obvious successor to Yeltsin is Chernomyrdin, who constitutionally will take over if Yeltsin is incapacitated.

There were some rumors that, as Grozny burned, Chernomyrdin was beginning to plan his "future government" last week. If the "party of war" tried to take over, he needed a group with which to counterattack.

But Yeltsin, with his natural feel for power, is now placating Chernomyrdin once again.

In fact the only person who looks capable of undermining Yeltsin is Yeltsin himself. Each new crisis sends him spinning into more and more eccentric behavior. No one but a deep insider can say whether it is illness, drunkenness or depression, but the damage is legible on his face, for all to see. He is likely to survive Chechnya, but his next crisis may be his last.