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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yavlinsky Born Again




After President Boris Yeltsin's visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and notably after his failure to go to Austria, most members of the Russian elite are obsessed today with the simple question: Who will be the next Russian president?


The Yeltsin era is clearly drawing to an end. Yeltsin demonstrates all too visibly both physical and political weaknesses that cause many people to doubt that his presidency will last until the year 2000. The Communists in the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, have started impeachment proceedings, and key regional governors are calling for Yeltsin to go. Two of the most popular presidential candidates, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed, are openly pushing for early presidential election.


There are obvious reasons for Luzhkov's and Lebed's impatience.


The powerful mayor of Moscow is very close to forging an alliance with the Communists, whose leader, Gennady Zyuganov, whilst presiding over the most powerful party machine in Russia, is not popular enough to win election. His willingness to join forces with Luzhkov, however, could be a short-lived phenomenon, as the Communist Party may be facing a split over the plan. Luzhkov's greatest achievement, a relatively prosperous Moscow, has been severely hit by the economic crisis. In a matter of months, if not weeks, Luzhkov will start to lose his reputation as an economic miracle-worker.


Lebed boosted his political status enormously when he won the governor's seat in the vast Krasnoyarsk region. The area, however, is economically depressed, and there are no quick solutions to most of its problems. Lebed desperately needs to get out of this long-term trap by standing for, and possibly being elected, president.


It should not, however, be taken for granted that the presidential elections will be held ahead of their scheduled date of 2000. It is not in the interests of many members of the Russian elite to get Yeltsin out of the Kremlin right now. Yeltsin largely exercises a live-and-let-live approach when it comes to regional bosses and government bureaucrats, many of whom are fearful that a new president would start a purge to strengthen the Kremlin's power.


Many politicians and experts alike are concerned that Yeltsin's early retirement would send new shock waves through Russia's depressed economy, destabilize the underdeveloped political system, and undermine the fragile constitutional order.


Moreover, Yeltsin may accept a much more limited role for himself, transferring most of his power to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and secluding himself in his residence near Moscow. With some self-restraint, Yeltsin has a realistic chance of living well beyond 2000, even with his impaired health.


If the presidential elections are held on schedule in 2000, leaders such as Luzhkov and Lebed are inevitably going to lose much of their momentum.


Some experts have started already to consider Primakov as a strong presidential candidate, but since he will preside over major economic depression in the next few months he is also unlikely to maintain his popularity and political status.


Who will benefit if the elections are held on schedule? The answer may not be obvious: the leader of the Yabloko faction, Grigory Yavlinsky.


Yavlinsky is a veteran of the presidential campaign trail. He is the only presidential candidate who is also a professional economist with a detailed program to tackle Russia's economic ills, and is also probably the only one to have a professional team ready to run a future government. Yavlinsky and his faction in the State Duma have the most consistent record of voting according to their political and economic principles, never yielding to pressure from the Kremlin.


Yavlinsky appears routinely in all kinds of tables showing the ratings of presidential candidates, usually trailing Luzhkov, Lebed and Zyuganov. It is worth noting that all three of the latter recently started to make favorable statements about Yavlinsky and his economic program, clearly hoping to win his support for the next elections.


Yavlinsky is widely respected for his political courage and consistency, but few people believe - or believed until recently - that he can win the presidential race. He is perceived as too intellectual, too impractical, too liberal and too different in his appearance from a typical Russian ruler. Perhaps even more important, he himself has not always projected firm belief in his ability to become president. Many experts believe that the best-case scenario for Yavlinsky is to perform convincingly in the first round of a presidential election and then to bargain for the position of prime minister, enjoying strong popular support under any new president.


Yavlinsky recently suffered a major blow. In the search for a solution to the recent political crisis in Russia, he proposed Primakov as prime minister, in order to preserve a minimum of social and political stability in the country. His immediate "reward" from Primakov was the unacceptable offer of the position of deputy prime minister in charge of welfare programs, one of the worst dead-end jobs in Russian government. Predictably, he declined.


Following his recent heart attack, the fully recovered Yavlinsky looks a different man after his return to political life; more mature, more decisive and more ruthless, as he has demonstrated with his anti-corruption campaign. He finally looks like a person who has subordinated all his life to one goal: to become president and to stir the nation to take a new and more promising direction.


It is absolutely necessary to believe in yourself in order to become president.Yavlinsky has now been born again with just such a deep and pervasive belief. With Luzhkov, Lebed and Zyuganov each making a false start and losing momentum, Yavlinsky's new sense of mission may give him a decisive advantage. Time may be working for him.


Igor Malashenko is the former head of the NTV commercial television station and current deputy for political relations to the Media-MOST company. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.