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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kudos to Kremlin Kamikaze

Boris Nemtsov, the Nizhny Novgorod governor who was picked this week to be one of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's first deputies, is not a complete babe in the woods. After his appointment was announced, he said he understood that his new job, which will include reforming key institutions like housing subsidies and the natural monopolies, is a political kamikaze mission.


In an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, he reinforced his well-deserved image as an untainted reformer, promising he would neither steal, take bribes or lie. He has began his new work with a modest but reasonable demand -- that state officials drive Russian-made Volgas, not Mercedes.


As some observers have noted, Nemtsov's unexpected nomination was a classic example of Boris Yeltsin's divide-and-rule approach. Chernomyrdin and Anatoly Chubais, the other first deputy prime minister, represent two powerful groupings. On one side are monopolies such as Gazprom and United Energy Systems, along with the old-school industrial "red directors." On the other side, the New Russian banking sector.


Yeltsin, knowing that a stool can't balance on two legs, apparently decided to create a counterweight to these two camps, which are increasingly vying for power, by appointing an outsider with no apparent ties to either.


Nemtsov, because of his independence and his clean image, will give government policy the human face it currently lacks. He will also give the regional elites a sense that they have a voice in the capital.


But will Nemtsov, who spoke eloquently this week of the need to move Russia away from corrupt mafia capitalism toward democratic capitalism, be able to accomplish anything? He will first have to learn how business gets done at the top. Here, he seems a bit naive. "I don't know how to participate in Kremlin intrigues," he said in his Komsomolskaya Pravda interview. "I absolutely don't know the rules that have taken root there."


Not long ago, the weekly Moskovskiye Novosti published excerpts of a leaked government document that gives some insight into the rules that have taken root in the corridors of power. According to the weekly, it was prepared in the apparat of Vladimir Babichev, who this week lost his title of deputy prime minister but remains the prime minister's chief of staff.


The document begins: "The anarchy of the federal center, its extremely well-developed corrupted appetites, the primitiveness of the regional authorities, the criminalization of the economy, have put the administrative process in Russia on the border of chaos." The document says that any minister worth his salt must set up his own "shadow, closed security structure," designed to prevent infiltration by criminal organizations and to ferret out plots by "groups of federal authority that are hostile to the minister." This secret structure should lobby and infiltrate other ministries, collect kompromat, or compromising information, and maintain "informal" contacts with journalists.


It should also, reads the document, handle "problems which cannot be solved openly, without the use of special forces, given the conditions of extreme governmental corruption and the criminalization of the whole state organism."


The document claims that most ministers, along with other top officials and political party leaders, have created such security structures, disguising them as "funds." Chernomyrdin, it alleges, has five "funds."


How will the young reformer from Nizhny Novgorod fare in this environment? Hopefully he will survive. But if the document accurately reflects what goes on at the top, he will do what any creature does in a jungle: adapt or perish.


Another question which this week's government reshuffle raises is whether Yeltsin's balancing act makes a real policy shift more likely -- or less likely.


If Chubais had been named Chernomyrdin's only deputy, as originally expected, he would certainly have forced serious changes, many of them at the expense of the natural monopolies. Whether Chubais' policy would have moved the country toward democratic capitalism or, instead, consolidated the New Russian bankers' political power, can be debated. In any case, Chubais would have acted decisively.


Now, however, Chubais, Chernomyrdin and Nemtsov all have policy-making roles and surely will not always be reading from the same script. Thus Yeltsin's decision to create a "hybrid" government, as Moskovskiye Novosti warned this week, may result in "half-measures, half-reforms and full decay."