Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

party lines: Premier Left Sitting Pretty




All good things come to those who wait -- especially when the person who is biding his time happens to be the prime minister of Russia.


Viktor Chernomyrdin has emerged as the winner in the internecine war that culminated in First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais losing control over key levers of power -- privatization, bankruptcy and finance.


Chubais' defeat marked a peak in a struggle that began after his first brush with political oblivion, in January 1996, when President Boris Yeltsin fired him as first deputy prime minister. That time, Chubais quickly rose from the ashes, engineering Yeltsin's successful re-election campaign. After being named Yeltsin's chief of staff, Chubais launched a campaign to "consolidate power" on behalf of the state.


When Chubais was again named first deputy prime minister last March, he seemed to be on the verge of consolidating power in his own hands. Yeltsin, however, suddenly picked Boris Nemtsov as Chernomyrdin's second deputy -- reportedly at the urging of Boris Berezovsky, who was then a deputy secretary of the president's advisory Security Council -- which partially checked Chubais' ambitions.


But the emerging split between the energetic young reformers and Uneximbank on one side, and Berezovsky and his allies on the other, forced Nemtsov and Chubais to close ranks -- and Chernomyrdin into a de facto alliance with Berezovsky and his pals. Chernomyrdin, however, played his hand subtly: He remained above the fray, at least publicly, and waited for Chubais' wings to melt.


Nemtsov also played his hand well. He was reportedly instrumental in ousting Berezovsky from the Security Council, but was careful not to challenge Chernomyrdin. In addition, once Chubais' hubris got the best of him, Nemtsov let his erstwhile ally twist in the wind. Nemtsov even questioned the mantra of Chubais' supporters in the West when he told a television interviewer that Chubais was in no way "irreplaceable." Nemtsov, in a sense, was right. It is now he, not Chubais, who takes the helm of government when Chernomyrdin goes abroad.


After Chubais' comeuppance, Chernomyrdin further demonstrated his skills in palace intrigue by engineering the nomination of Yabloko's Mikhail Zadornov,chairman of the State Duma's budget committee, to replace Chubais as finance minister. In doing so, Chernomyrdin put a Chubais foe in a key post while simultaneously weakening a key critic, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky.


Chernomyrdin, apparently, has also put Berezovsky in his place. According to some Russian press accounts, Berezovsky, smarting after his own ouster, was reportedly banking on Chubais' total political destruction. The tycoon reportedly also expected to be allowed to win the tender for the strategic state oil company Rosneft.


Instead, the government is in the process of removing Yury Bespalov, Rosneft's current chief and reportedly a Berezovsky loyalist, from his post. Thus, Chernomyrdin, in effect, has told Berezovsky: Thanks for your help, now get lost.


Yet despite his newly strengthened position in the Kremlin sweepstakes, Chernomyrdin's power -- like that of everyone else at the top of the food chain -- is contingent. Yeltsin giveth, and Yeltsin taketh away.


Thus the Russian president Tuesday again publicly declared he would not give Chubais up. This was partly aimed at the Communists, who are screaming for Chubais' scalp. (Not that they really want it. Given their own political bankruptcy, the Communists need Chubais in the government as a whipping boy. Likewise, Chubais may even welcome the Communists' latest onslaught. It is probably one of the few things left which endears him to Yeltsin.) But Yeltsin's defense of Chubais also puts Chernomyrdin on notice not to get too big for his britches.


Chubais is by no means off the hook. Yeltsin, as Kommersant Daily noted Wednesday, has on five occasions since 1992 fired a top official shortly after defending him publicly. With Yeltsin's announcement that he will call the Cabinet to account Dec. 1, with the press in attendance, it is unlikely anyone in the Cabinet is sleeping well.


The ministers will have little to brag about. Tax collection remains dismal, while privatization -- the last great hope for revenues -- is stalling. This means they will probably fail to pay off the state workers by Yeltsin's Jan. 1 deadline.


Given the time devoted to the struggle for power, how could it be otherwise?