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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Conflict of Generations

The war within the corridors of power is becoming increasingly intense, and some commentators, reaching into Russian history, have dubbed the opposing factions "Westernizers" and "Slavophiles." The conflict, however, is better seen as generational. In one corner are the New Russian tycoons, many of whom began their careers as Komsomol businessmen and who are now represented by First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais. In the other are older Soviet-era industrialists, represented by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.


The scandals last week over the Russia-Belarus integration agreement and Chernomyrdin's alleged $5 billion personal fortune were two public signs of the growing power struggle. While there have not yet been any knockdowns, it is clear from these scandals and the ongoing Cabinet reshuffle that Chubais is winning on points.


He managed to get Dmitry Ryurikov, Yeltsin's long-time foreign policy adviser, fired for pushing rapid integration with Belarus. Two Chernomyrdin allies, the fuel and energy minister, Pyotr Rodionov, and labor minister, Gennady Melikyan, were forced from their posts.


Meanwhile Chubais, who is also finance minister, has brought on board Igor Kudrin, a long-time colleague, as deputy finance minister, and placed another ally, former deputy economics minister Sergei Vasiliev, directly under Vladimir Babichev, the powerful head of the government apparatus and a key Chernomyrdin ally. These appointments weaken the prime minister's grip over the levers of governmental power.


Chernomyrdin and Co., however, are not surrendering without a fight. The speech to the Duma on Wednesday by Rem Vyakhirev, chairman of Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly that the prime minister once headed, was a clever counter-attack. It was designed to paint the Westernizers as anti-Russian and move Chernomyrdin's long-time flirtation with the opposition into the realm of true romance.


Vyakhirev, who charged that U.S. energy companies, the International Monetary Fund and Finance Ministry were conspiring to break up Gazprom, received thunderous applause from the communist-dominated legislature.


Yet despite the pro-Chernomyrdin counter-attack, one wise, if not totally impartial observer predicted this week that the Westernizers will prevail. The Chernomyrdin team, now forced into a "rear guard battle," has little hope of grabbing "the strategic initiative," wrote Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the think tank, Politika, in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.


Should the Westernizers win, what will it mean? Put differently, are they liberals, in the Western sense?


It looks increasingly unlikely that the government's anti-monopoly policy, led by First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, means that Russia has entered its Progressive Era. Nemtsov has stressed that he has no plans to break up either Gazprom or United Energy Systems, and Vyakhirev said he had reached a "gentlemen's agreement" with Nemtsov to leave the gas giant intact.


The Westernizers are probably more interested in wresting Gazprom from their elders than chopping it up. Their thinking may mirror that of Roman Popkovich, deputy head of the Our Home is Russia faction in the Duma, who said this week: "The state should be proud that it has such powerful corporations as Gazprom, which put fear into the hearts of foreign countries that for the time being are our partners, but are very far from being our friends."


Liberals out of power tend to become "derzhavniki" -- great-power advocates -- once inside. They also start thinking like "gosudarstveniki" -- statists. Just recall the comment last autumn by Vasiliev after the government announced the formation of the temporary emergency commission on tax evasion: "It is necessary to introduce an economic dictatorship that would exercise control over the work of banks, payment transfers and tax collection." Liberals, as a rule, don't like economic dictatorships.


And New Russian business leaders do not sound like Adam Smith apostles. In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta this week, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, president of the Rosprom-Yukos financial-industrial group and a Chubais ally, was asked how long business will continue to be connected to the state. "In Russia, always," he answered.


All this suggests there are fewer differences between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles than meet the eye. And, should they prevail, the Westernizers, like their predecessors, will be judged not by their intentions but their ability to revive Russia's moribund economy. This, as Nikonov wrote with understatement, will be "complicated."