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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Shell Game for Power

Remember the "party of war?" It was the name the press gave to a group of Kremlin hardliners that was ousted by a group of Kremlin liberals immediately after the first round of last summer's presidential elections. The bad guys were led by then-presidential security chief Alexander Korzhakov; the good guys -- by Anatoly Chubais, now Yeltsin's chief of staff.

The "party of war" was linked to a host of nefarious activities, but it earned its sinister name largely from its perceived responsibility for the carnage in Chechnya.

But the events surrounding the ouster of Alexander Lebed show just how such labelling can be dangerous.

What, for starters, was the mercurial ex-paratroop general? A hawk, or a dove? A hardliner, or a liberal?

During his 120 days in the Yeltsin administration, he made a host of contradictory statements on a host of issues -- sometimes sounding like General Augusto Pinochet, at other times like ex-U.S. President Jimmy Carter. He flip-flopped on Chechnya and NATO expansion. He eventually negotiated an end to the Chechen war, yet forged an alliance with Korzhakov, chief of yesterday's "party of war."

Lebed was driven from his posts through the combined efforts of Chubais, head of the liberal Kremlin faction; Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, long viewed as a dove on Chechnya; and Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, a hawk's hawk.

In trying to decipher all this, think Machiavelli. How else to explain the backing that Communist leaders in the State Duma gave the government over Lebed's firing? The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The Lebed issue is not the only point on which the interests of the erstwhile opposition and the party of power coincided in recent days.

Alexei Podberyozkin, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov's top ideological adviser, confirmed last week that Zyuganov and Chernomyrdin have been consulting "constantly." He also agreed with Chubais that Russia's regions should be "controlled from the center."

For his part, Chubais said last Friday that he welcomed cooperation with anyone, "even the Communists." Podberyozkin, an advocate of "gossudarstvenost," or a strong state, has long tried to forge ties with like-minded officials in the government. He was reportedly involved in a proposal last May to form a "government of national unity," which would include both Communists and Yeltsinites. Korzhakov was apparently also behind this effort. When he openly advocated postponing the presidential vote, it became clear that some of those behind the proposal had a junta in mind.

Some analysts viewed the warming of Communist-government relations as a sign that Russia has entered the stage of democratic coalition-building.

A less rosy interpretation viewed it as part of an effort to establish a corporatist system, in which the opposition accepts the status quo in exchange for access to budget funds and other goodies.

Whatever the case, some of those on high are apparently thinking about how to rule the country in a post-Yeltsin era. Note the appearance of two new, extra-constitutional state bodies. One is the "temporary emergency commission," headed by Chernomyrdin, with Chubais as his assistant. While this structure was conceived as a weapon against tax evaders, Chubais has given it a wider significance, calling it a "step" in "the consolidation of power."

The second new organ is the "Council of Four," comprised of Chernomyrdin and Chubais, along with State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov, an official in Zyuganov's party, and Federation Council speaker Igor Stroyev, a former Soviet Politburo member.

Together, these structures could serve as an alternative to a strong presidency -- perhaps a kind of Politburo.

It is one thing, however, to declare "national unity" or "the consolidation of power" as aims, it is another thing to achieve them. Russian politics is characterized by ceaseless jockeying for position, exacerbated now by the head of state's bad heart.

Thus, when financier Boris Berezovsky, a Chubais ally, was made deputy head of the advisory Security Council on Wednesday, the era of government-opposition cooperation came to a grinding halt. Seleznyov called on Yeltsin to fire Chubais and suspended his membership in the Council of Four until after the president's operation.

Until that procedure is carried out, the maneuvering will continue, and trying to figure out who's with whom will be like watching Three-Card Monty.