. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How to Avoid a Palace Coup

The dramatic events of last week, most importantly the sacking of Boris Yeltsin's closest comrade Alexander Korzhakov, leave a lot of questions unanswered.

Alexander Lebed blurted out in the early hours of Thursday morning that there had been "an attempt to cancel the second round" of the election, but said nothing thereafter. Anatoly Chubais later talked about an "illusion of military coups" that had failed, but did not elaborate.

But Chubais must have said something of real weight to Yeltsin on Thursday morning to persuade him to sack three such important men, including the all-powerful Korzhakov. What was it?

There is actually no need to look far for an explanation, because a convincing scenario has already been mapped out in some detail by Victoria Clark of the Observer newspaper and Andrei Piontkowsky of the Center for Strategic Studies. Unjustly ignored by many -- including myself -- they now seem to have been completely borne out.

The story they uncovered goes something like this: Korzhakov, Mikhail Barsukov and Oleg Soskovets had become increasingly independent of Yeltsin. They realized they would lose power if Yeltsin lost an election and that therefore it was better not to have one at all. But if they cancelled the election, how could they avoid a huge confrontation with the "national-patriotic opposition" on the lines of September-October 1993? The answer was to offer the opposition a grand coalition government. Yeltsin himself could stay in office but with much reduced powers.

Ideologically the three men were close to the new non-Marxist nationalist wing of the Communist Party, represented by the likes of Alexander Prokhanov, editor of Zavtra, and the head of the Spiritual Heritage foundation, Alexei Podberyozkin. They had a striking coincidence of views, wanting to see a strong Russian state with an aggressive foreign policy, protectionist economist policies, a revived arms industry and resurgent security services.

This was all confirmed in Korzhakov's now-famous interview to the Observer. He argued for a postponement of the elections on the grounds that Russia had to avoid a "civil war." Moreover, he said, it was possible to talk to the Communists, just like people did in Italy.

Meanwhile the head of LogoVAZ, Boris Berezovsky, an ally of Korzhakov, was heading out on a parallel tack with his "Letter of Thirteen" that called for "compromise," stability and implicitly for the postponement of the elections. Berezovsky received Zyuganov and Prokhanov and Podberyozkin made approving comments about the idea.

Although Zyuganov himself publicly rejected the idea of cancelling the elections, he clearly considered it, because the idea of coalition government started cropping up in his pronouncements. Just the day before the Kremlin troika was sacked he suddenly seemed to have been converted, saying Russia was "fated to coalition government."

"The country is split. One third voted for Yeltsin and one third voted for us," he said.

Yeltsin also liked to keep his options open. Toward the end of the campaign he effectively had two teams working in parallel for him on different floors of the President Hotel. One, run by Chubais, was working for a Yeltsin victory over Zyuganov. The other, run by Korzhakov, was working on more subterranean options, some of which Yeltsin may have found out about only recently.

Korzhakov used discouraging poll figures to bolster his cause and keep the president on his side. But his plans were thrown out of kilter by Yeltsin's unexpectedly dynamic campaign and genuine rise in the polls.

Yeltsin also had a new close confidante in his younger daughter, Tatayana Dyachenko, who worked with Chubais' team as his main image-maker and had several run-ins with the presidential security service.

The ingredients for a palace coup and a postponement of the election were definitely all there. What is unclear to me was how far plans had progressed.

The attempt to arrest the two men in the White House could have been the first step of an effort to cancel the second round; equally well it may have been a desperate move by a group which now wanted merely to sideline the Chubais campaign team and take credit for a Yeltsin democratic victory.

Whatever the case, Chubais on June 20 seems to have been able to persuade Yeltsin, probably with the help of his daughter, that Korzhakov had been deceiving him. Now that he was riding at the top of electoral popularity again, Yeltsin decided to sack three men who had been leading him astray.