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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Abrasive Chubais Still Asset to Recovering Yeltsin

With Boris Yeltsin gradually making his way back toward the Kremlin, the question preoccupying political Moscow concerns his abrasive chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais -- will he stay or will he go now?

According to analysts, Chubais, despite his many enemies, is still an asset for the Russian president.

Critics charge that Chubais has tried to grab power in Yeltsin's absence. In an interview published this week, however, Chubais portrayed himself as the reluctant executor of an unpleasant, but necessary task.

"It is terribly difficult to run the presidential administration in the absence of the president," he told the magazine Novoye Vremya. "An extremely unpleasant thing ... I have to take decisions all the time, this is my official duty. If decisions are put off, things get bogged down and plans begin to collapse. And if one has to adopt decisions without having a chance to consult the president, this naturally, makes things ten times more difficult."

Being unpopular is not a new experience for the former privatization and economics tsar. The Communists and nationalists accuse him of having masterminded a massive property grab. Other enemies include Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov -- also a critic of his privatization program -- as well as ex-national security tsar Alexander Lebed and former presidential security chief Alexander Korzhakov, both of whom blame Chubais for their sackings.

Earlier this fall, as Yeltsin awaited heart bypass surgery, opposition leaders and some democrats charged that Chubais, aided by Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin's younger daughter, was establishing a "regency." Many cited as proof an Oct. 2 executive order widening the power of the presidential administration.

The growth of Chubais' power has been accompanied by a spate of negative press expos?s involving him and those deemed his allies, such as financier Boris Berezovsky, who was named deputy Security Council secretary in October. Chubais has fingered Korzhakov as the source of the compromising information; others have blamed the communists.

Korzhakov, for his part, said in an interview in this week's Kommersant magazine that Chubais should "look around himself, at those who surround him" to find the sources of the leaks.

But if Chubais' efforts to create a Kremlin-headed "vertical of power" has earned him new enemies, it is by no means clear that they contravene Yeltsin's own goals.

The chief of staff is heading the effort to place allies of the "party of power" in governorships and to bring less friendly regional leaders in line with the center. Pro-Kremlin candidates have won half the contests held so far in this autumn's round of gubernatorial elections.

"Since Chubais is already not very popular in the regions, he has very little to lose by confronting the governors, and Yeltsin probably wants to remain in the shadows and to see what the results of the regional elections will be," said Andrei Kortunov of the Russian Science Foundation.

Chubais can already be credited with bringing some of Yeltsin former arch-enemies to heel, such as ex-vice president Alexander Rutskoi, who was recently elected as governor of Kursk. One of Rutskoi's first acts as governor was to ask to meet with Chubais. In his Novoye Vremya interview, Chubais declared Rutskoi "fully loyal."

In addition, the "temporary emergency commission" on tax evasion, which is headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, but which was reportedly conceived by Chubais, is "a very good means of pressure on these governors and businesses which exist in the regions," said Sergei Markov of the Moscow center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The presidential administration has also been working to bring local laws into line with the Russian constitution -- that is, to subordinate them to federal law. In addition, according to an analysis published Friday in the weekly newspaper Vek, Chubais has been busy verifying the "loyalty" of officials in Russia's power ministries -- defense, interior and the various security services.

Were Yeltsin to sack Chubais, it would not be the first time. Last January, the president made Chubais a scapegoat for ongoing economic problems and relieved him of his duties as first deputy prime minister.

But analysts believe Yeltsin, this time around, is unlikely to fire Chubais, at least for the time being.

"I don't think he will be fired, I think his authority will be limited," said Markov, who added that Chubais may be used as a partial scapegoat for continuing economic problems, including the tax arrears crisis.

Andrei Piontkowsky of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies said one guarantee that Chubais is safe for now are the growing calls for his scalp. "Chubais is a symbolic figure, and Yeltsin never yields under pressure," he said.

Analysts differ over whether Chubais and Chernomyrdin are allies or competitors, or both. Some believe Chubais has encroached on Chernomyrdin's turf, and that the government and the presidential administration are competing for influence over Russia's power ministries.

But Yury Korgunyuk, of the Center for Applied Political Studies, said both Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin need Chubais as a flack catcher.

"If Chubais were fired, they would have to replace him with the same kind of person -- a person who, on the one hand possesses exceptional administrative skills and political will and knows what his goals are, and who, on the other hand is rather selfless," he said.

"In that post, what's really needed is a kamikaze."