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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chubais Now the Heavy in Cabinet Tug-of-War

Sitting next to fellow Cabinet architect Anatoly Chubais at a meeting with the president Monday, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin looked like a dejected man.


As Russia's leading troika discussed President Boris Yeltsin's addition of pioneering Nizhny Novgorod Governor Boris Nemtsov to their ranks, the prime minister fidgeted in his seat, mumbled some phrases, and examined his palms.


Chubais, however, seemed delighted.


"A strong decision, Boris Nikolayevich," Chubais told Yeltsin, pumping both fists for emphasis. "This is a quality solution to the situation."


Chubais' good cheer and Chernomyrdin's apparent discomfort were the most obvious sign that it was the 41-year-old economist who emerged victorious in this week's cabinet reshuffle.


Before Yeltsin intervened, a tug-of-war between Chubais and Chernomyrdin had ground to a standstill. While Chubais had been looking for a clean sweep of the Cabinet, the more conservative Chernomyrdin had wanted as little change as possible with a Cabinet that balanced industrial lobby groups against radical reformers.


News leaks throughout the seven-day behind-the-scenes tussle suggested that the prime minister was holding his own. "Chernomyrdin, previously written off the books, put up a surprisingly strong resistance to Chubais," said Nezavisimaya Gazeta in its Tuesday issue.


When the smoke cleared and Yeltsin brought Niznhy Novgorod governor Nemtsov, 37, into the Cabinet, Chubais may have had to change his game plan, but he was clearly satisfied.


Chubais said in a television interview Tuesday that it was he who first invited Nemtsov to join the government. Russian press reported that entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky flew to Nizhny Novgorod to convince the reluctant Nemtsov to join Chubais, and Yeltsin's personal intervention was the clincher.


Although Nemtsov is now being seen as a counterweight to Chubais, he is also a close ally. Nemtsov broadens Chubais' shallow base of support in government as well as the regions. "This did not happen because of under-carpet wars. Quite simply, Russia's No. 1 administrator did not have a strong personal team," said Kommersant Daily.


Nemtsov may also use his popular image to explain economic policy to the people, said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies. "Yegor Gaidar failed to convince the public, and Chubais' credibility is zero. Nemtsov may serve a useful role as a campaigner."


Indeed, Nemtsov's promotion into the Cabinet was Yeltsin's response to popular discontent with Chubais, said Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian Science Foundation.


"After making a final survey of the situation, Yeltsin decided to sweeten the pot," Kortunov said. "Nemtsov is a potential lightning rod for the regions, and perhaps even to the [State] Duma."


The new Cabinet will relegate Chernomyrdinto the sidelines of economic policy. It will also create an uncomfortable rival in the race to succeed Yeltsin. In Nemtsov, the Cabinet now has a charismatic, genuinely popular politician who may pose a serious threat to Chernomyrdin's expected challenge for the presidency at the next elections.


Chernomyrdin has precious few allies in the government, but he is clearly indispensable, if only because appointing a new prime minister would force Yeltsin to take the uncomfortable step of seeking the approval of the hostile Duma.


This may explain why he was able to win at least one big battle in the Cabinet reshuffle. Chubais said he had wanted his ally, the prominent banker Vladimir Potanin, to remain in the Cabinet. Segodnya newspaper said Chernomyrdin had refused to accept Potanin, largely because of his attacks on Gazprom, the gas monopoly which is the prime minister's traditional fiefdom. (See Story, Page 10.)


Although Chernomyrdin's power is diminished, some analysts suggest the prime minister is quite satisfied with his reduced role in government.


"Chernomyrdin looks for useful compromises without getting himself hurt," said Yury Korgunyuk, of the INDEM think tank. Chernomyrdin's goal is to survive in politics until the year 2000, Korgunyuk said. "He knows better that anyone how many people can come and go over three years."