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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Political Roll of the Dice




When a candidate for vice president is chosen in America, people think first about whether this person will be capable of ruling the country in case the president is not able to assume his functions. But Russia is not accustomed to planning so far into the future. All attention and efforts are concentrated on two or three first moves, and then the famous Russian "maybe" enters into play. Assuming the 35-year-old Sergei Kiriyenko is confirmed as prime minister, at least for three months, a nuclear power with a population of 150 million people would be ruled by this young man if the president were no longer able to fulfill his duties. Perhaps there is nothing terrible about this. Still, no one has sufficiently analyzed the following question: Is Russia prepared to be governed by "Generation Next"?


The funniest thing (if in the given situation it is appropriate to laugh at all) is not even this. The funniest thing is that Kiriyenko's name surfaced only Monday when someone apparently explained to Yeltsin that his morning decree granting him powers as head of government, as in 1991, was unconstitutional. This is forbidden both by the 1993 Constitution and the law on government that Yeltsin himself signed in 1997. According to the plans of the main inspirers of the "overthrow" of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the head of the Cabinet should have been someone else -- namely Ivan Rybkin, acting minister for the affairs of the Commonwealth of Independent States.


No matter how complex and grand-master-like premeditated combinations are in Russia, they always fail. This is because "Berezovsky proposes, but Yeltsin disposes." There is yet another purely Russian paradox: In Russian political culture, there is no tradition of making short-term goals and tactics commensurate with long-term strategies. Therefore, Chernomyrdin's immortal aphorism will never lose its topicality in Russia: "We wanted it to be better, and it turned out as always."


The interview on Itogi with tycoon Boris Berezovsky on the eve of the "coup d'etat," in which he said new people were needed, that Chernomyrdin, as the head of the "party of power," is unelectable and that this very party of power risked losing in future parliamentary and presidential elections, had an entirely clear purpose. There is all the reason to believe, however, that if Chernomyrdin had not signed a document on the conditions of privatizing Rosneft that was to Berezovsky's disadvantage, then he could have easily remained head of government for a long time to come. Thus, the short-term goal -- Rosneft -- overshadowed all the rest.


The weakest link in all these complex moves is, of course, Yeltsin himself. He is already old. He is in weak health. Deep down, he probably does not want to burden himself with a third term, to which his family and inner circle are trying to sentence him. He is, however, extremely worried about the family. He is also very jealous about anyone who, especially symbolically, encroaches on his power. Finally, he is susceptible to pressure up to a point.


Yeltsin was discussing nonpayments with Chernomyrdin Saturday (and a planned meeting with the deputy prime ministers to address the problem Monday). But another man had approached him in the meantime, and, as a result, Chernomyrdin was dismissed. Perhaps the last straw was when the president was reminded: "And that Chernomyrdin, Boris Nikolayevich, is ready to appear on television every week, and you only have the radio to address the people." But after the prime minister was sacked, putting further pressure on the president was suddenly no longer useful. Rybkin was not nominated.


As a result of the president's various and even purely chance steps, an entirely new political situation could arise. Perhaps this will be all for the better. The current authorities are truly unelectable. It was not such a bad idea to break with the old state of affairs (along with the old Chernomyrdin government). It was becoming more and more reminiscent of Brezhnev's sad period of stagnation.


A way out of this stagnation could sooner or later be found not only by a dramatic restructuring of how property has been distributed, which would be unpleasant for the current elite, but by the appearance of a powerful anti-system "third" force, not excluding a new authoritarian government.


Yeltsin's moves were like a throw of the dice.


Kiriyenko, of course, could break the alliances that have formed within the power elite. Many might underestimate the potential of the nominated prime minister. He gained notable experience as the head of a regional committee of the Komsomol. This is an excellent school for political flexibility, pragmatism and political cynicism.


Events could develop along a pessimistic scenario. A young man, who does not have much experience in government, could simply botch things up. The State Duma could veto his candidacy as prime minister, despite the threat of the lower house's dismissal. In this case, parliamentary elections would take place in September, and what would result from this is not clear. Finally, the Russian elite could grow tired of the president's unpredictability, methods of ruling and his "games without rules." Although the political flexibility and patience of the political elite is great, it is not unlimited. I don't want to turn out to be prophetic, but by striving all the time to stand above the fray, the president could end up politically isolated.


It sometimes happens that, in dice games, you get six sixes on your first throw. But this happens very rarely.


Georgy Bovt is a staff writer for Segodnya. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.