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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Yeltsin's Stagnation Politics




President Boris Yeltsin dismissed his entire government, but Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov are apparently here to stay. After he sent First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais and Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov packing, Yeltsin went out of his way to praise Sergeyev and Primakov for their work.


Of course, in Moscow, a presidential commendation can often be a Byzantine way of indicating an imminent discharge. Recently, Yeltsin publicly patted Kulikov on the back and also praised Chubais, vowing never to "give him up." In almost the same words, Yeltsin praised Yegor Gaidar in 1992 just before he suddenly dismissed him and appointed Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister.


Yeltsin may seem deceptive and unpredictable, but his actions are always consistent with his overall determination to accumulate and keep power. Personal connections and merit mean nothing when a minister or an aide become a potential threat.


Kulikov was too loud-mouthed in public on Chechnya and threatened to provoke a conflict that Yeltsin does not now want. Chubais has long been the most disliked man in Russia. Chernomyrdin was increasingly seen as a possible successor to Yeltsin, especially in the United States. As any aging tsar, Yeltsin hates potential successors more than anything else.


But he seems to believe that all is fine with foreign policy and defense. The opposition in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, is not clamoring for the resignation of Primakov or Sergeyev. The anti-government movement of renegade General Lev Rokhlin has failed to become a serious threat. Primakov and Sergeyev keep a low profile and keep away from public politics.


Except for foreign affairs and defense, Yeltsin's presidency would seem a total mess. The world price of oil (Russia's major foreign currency earner) is depressed. So there will be no noticeable economic growth in 1998. Instead there will be more shortfalls in tax revenue and more wage arrears for state employees, including the military. The auction of Rosneft and the sale of other state oil-related assets will probably bring less money than the Kremlin hopes for.


Still, Yeltsin does not appear to see the connection between a dismal economic outlook, caused by falling oil prices, and Primakov's policy over Iraq. If Primakov had been less zealous and stepped back a bit, U.S. bombs would have most likely fallen on Baghdad, causing the price of oil to exceed $20 per barrel instead of hovering near $12. Russia could have publicly called the United States an "aggressor" and meanwhile quietly counted the money.


Of course, Russia's efforts won it some respect in the Arab world. But unlike France, Russia seems incapable of capitalizing on diplomatic success.


Last week at the TRIDEX-'98 arms show in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the French were very active. France has finalized a $3.4 billion deal with the country to sell Mirage jets, and the French fighter Rafale is a front-runner in a $6 billion to $8 billion tender to sell the country 80 new fighters.


The tightly controlled United Arab Emirate press is now very critical of U.S. policies over Iraq. Russian arms traders could probably also cash in like the French. But the majority of Russian defense industry representatives who went to TRIDEX-'98 did not speak any English, not to mention Arabic. I was begged several times to translate conversations with prospective customers.


The majority of Russian defense industry managers are still very Soviet-style and inept. Most of them may have heard of marketing, but do not know what it really means.


Sergeyev's military reforms are even more dubious than Primakov's foreign policy. Sergeyev is immensely unpopular in the armed forces. The reforms he is implementing have further demoralized the military without achieving any tangible results. If Yeltsin were to attempt to use force, as he did in 1993, in a future fight with the Duma over who becomes the new prime minister, the army would certainly not obey orders.


But with Kulikov fired, Yeltsin can hardly be planning any unconstitutional mischief. He will more likely put forward a scheme to share political responsibility for the coming lean year with the opposition. This means also sharing some power with the communists and nationalists in a government headed by the lackluster technocrat Sergei Kiriyenko or someone else. Reforms, including military reform, will inevitably stagnate. But stagnation is nothing new in Russia.


Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor of Segodnya.