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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Hunt the Decision-Maker'

In a week of tragic events and bizarre statements, the most revealing words came from President Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov.

On Monday, as the deal between Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and rebel leader Shamil Basayev was coming to fruition, Filatov felt moved to tell Interfax that the negotiations had been fully agreed with the president. There were no differences between president and prime minister, he said.

Filatov's comments brought to mind journalist Claude Cockburn's dictum: "I never believe anything until it's been officially denied."

The Kremlin official went on to say that "the federal authorities are well aware of the fact that, for the terrorist commander in Budyonnovsk Shamil Basayev, a split in Russian society, driving a wedge between various political groups and even branches of power is more important than the talks."

So now we know the motive for Basayev's raid into Chechnya! What he was really trying to do was drive a wedge between Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin and force Yeltsin to accept the Duma's no-confidence vote in the government. Filatov, never the most astute of politicians, had strayed into the realms of the fantastic.

In fact what the Budyonnovsk fiasco painfully exposed once more is that there are two branches of government working in parallel in Moscow, the Kremlin and the White House, whose plans sometimes converge and sometimes do not. And this systemic malfunction never shows up so strongly as in the middle of a crisis.

Whether from malice or incompetence, different branches of power constantly give the impression of having nothing to do with each other. Last October, Yeltsin reshuffled the government without apparently consulting Chernomyrdin. In the first days of December, Chernomyrdin offered to negotiate with Dzhokhar Dudayev and Pavel Grachev said the "military option" had been ruled out; then Russian troops marched into Chechnya.

This time Yeltsin used force and failed, and Chernomyrdin started negotiating before the president was back from Halifax. Government spokesman Valery Grishin even denied that Saturday's assault had been ordered from Moscow. Grishin, may I remind you, made himself famous by saying Dec. 14, "There will be no storming of Grozny."

Some Moscow conspiracy theorists argue that it is all a put up job: The politicians deliberately disagree in public to cover their options, and they pick their roles in advance in order to confuse us.

But if we are thoroughly confused, I think it's because most of the politicians supposedly involved in taking decisions are as confused as we are. The best illustration of that is the normally bland Grishin. Government spokesmen do not willingly deceive if they can help it. If there is some doubt as to what is happening, they prefer to keep quiet.

After Budyonnovsk we have a new round of the game "hunt the decision-maker." The object of the game is to work out who on earth is responsible for a particular decision. Is there a chain of command? Who writes presidential decrees? Do the president's and the prime minister's aides bother to talk to each other on the telephone?

With the war in Chechnya, some people said they had cracked the puzzle. The presidential Security Council filled the role and was now Russia's effective executive body, they said. But in fact some of the key hawks of the Chechnya campaign -- Yeltsin's Security head Alexander Korzahkov, Kremlin Guard chief Mikhail Barsukov, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, Nationalities Minister Nikolai Yegorov -- are not on the Security Council.

If not the Security Council, then who? The ever stronger impression to emerge from each crisis is that the Kremlin is the court of an ailing president, where a well-placed word in a corridor is worth 100 documents prepared by the 100-member Analytical Center.

If we are to believe Izvestia, one of the key decisions of the Chechen war, the order to storm Grozny on New Year's Eve, was made at Pavel Grachev's birthday party, attended by both Barsukov and Soskovets.

Budyonnovsk has been different because, unlike in October 1993 or last December, the advocates of force lost the argument. Chernomyrdin circumvented the secret approach and hit them with an unprecedented attack of glasnost and he won. It feels as though we have seen more of him on television in the last week than in the last three years and now that he has won the advantage, I wonder if he will let it go.