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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hold Onto Chubais This Time

There is an uncanny similarity between the front page headlines of The Moscow Times a year ago and today. It has been almost exactly a year since President Boris Yeltsin last returned to the Kremlin after an extended convalescence.


In 1995, Yeltsin returned to work Dec. 27, two months after disappearing into sanatoria and hospitals following a second attack of what his spokesmen then described as "ischemia." In the wake of Yeltsin's second such return Monday, how far will the similarities continue?


Some observers, for example, believe Yeltsin may repeat the gesture he made early last January, when he fired Anatoly Chubais -- then a cabinet minister running the economy -- to appease a Communist Party triumphant after its victory in parliamentary elections.


By spring, Yeltsin had returned to extraordinary form, just in time to tear up the campaign trail and eclipse his younger rivals. But that remission was short, and Yeltsin suffered another heart seizure in June.


There are reasons to hope Yeltsin's return to the helm will be happier this time.


The first of these is that he has, in the interim, undergone apparently successful bypass surgery. According to his doctors, that means he should be fine as long as he does not immediately try to work 18-hour days.


A second reason is that the political situation is far less fraught with uncertainty than it was a year ago. The Communists no longer believe they are destined to rule the country in a matter of months, and there are no presidential elections scheduled for 1997. Therefore at least the possibility exists for Yeltsin to turn attention to the substantive problems of the country, rather than fighting for his political survival.


Will he do so? Certainly he has promised as much, but resolving the unpaid wages crisis, reforming the army, building an effective tax system, fighting back the crime wave that has lapped up to the very steps of the Kremlin -- these are far more difficult tasks for the president than winning re-election. Yeltsin is a born campaigner, but he has until now been a poor "peacetime" president.


For this reason, he should not dump Chubais again. Many believe that because Chubais overreached himself during the president's absence, he would serve as the ideal sacrifice for Yeltsin to make -- both to show that he is reasserting control and to keep the Communists tame.


But whatever his faults, Chubais is an effective political operator with a strong grasp of the economy and just the kind of tonic needed to galvanize an otherwise sluggish government team. Correctly used, he can compensate for Yeltsin's failures as a leader outside times of crisis.