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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Succession Wrangling Heats Up

President Boris Yeltsin's surprise decision to dissolve his whole government Monday was clearly part of a plan to find a successor to his Kremlin throne.

"The presidential elections of 2000 are of primary importance to us. The fate of the country is at stake," Yeltsin said in announcing the dismissals.

But the details of his plan remain a mystery, known only to the unpredictable and ailing president, and analysts remain in the dark as to whom Yeltsin wants to run for president in the year 2000.

The list of candidates ranges from Yeltsin himself to dismissed Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and beyond.

Some analysts said Monday's events were a sign that Yeltsin is turning away from the idea of running for a third term. Yeltsin's latest health setback -- he was sidelined for seven days last week by a respiratory infection -- may have prompted him to finally set up a mechanism for his own succession.

"I think that illness scared Yeltsin, and he decided it was time to move Chernomyrdin on to a larger political arena," said Yevgeny Volk, president of the Heritage Foundation office in Moscow.

If Yeltsin has decided not to run, he would have to find an alternative behind whom he could rally Moscow's fractious business and political leadership.

The nightmare scenario Yeltsin would like to avoid is one where several pro-Kremlin candidates split the so-called democratic vote, leaving Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist retired General Alexander Lebed facing each other in a second round runoff.

In one interpretation, by firing his trusted prime minister, Yeltsin is giving Chernomyrdin ample time to clean up his rusty image and to organize a well-financed campaign. Yeltsin said tantalizingly Monday that Chernomyrdin was to take charge of preparations for the elections in 2000, although the president did not say which candidacy he would support.

"It seems that big business is more and more ready to support Chernomyrdin, he doesn't seem to have all the political baggage of other candidates," Volk said. "Today, Yeltsin gave Chernomyrdin a carte blanche to launch his campaign."

It would have to be some campaign, however, that gets Chernomyrdin elected. He consistently scrapes the bottom of most public opinion polls, his approval rating never much higher than zero.

Some don't give Chernomyrdin much of a chance. "Chernomyrdin the politician is dead," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies.

"This is a huge political event. Chernomyrdin is done. This also spells the end to Our Home Is Russia," Chernomyrdin's State Duma faction, Piontkovsky said.

Some say Chernomyrdin will suffer the same fate as Lebed, Russia's most popular politician when he was booted from the Kremlin in 1996, but whose popularity has slumped in the year and half he has been out of office. They say Chernomyrdin may also soon be forgotten.

"I don't think that Chernomyrdin will ever again head the government party of power," said Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the INDEM think tank. "The person who becomes the new prime minister will have a great opportunity to succeed Yeltsin."

Yeltsin's plans may become clearer when a new prime minister is named. If Yeltsin picks a loyal figure with no presidential aspirations, Chernomyrdin will remain as the main contender, analysts said.

But should Yeltsin select an ambitious politician in the mold of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov or the youthful former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, analysts said that person could use the post to concentrate resources and win in 2000.

"If Yeltsin asks someone like Luzhkov or Nemtsov to be prime minister, I think it should tell us that Yeltsin will not run for re-election and that he has named the new prime minister as his successor," said Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies.

"If he names someone weak, without a big following, that means Yeltsin is still mulling his own option, or he might go with Chernomyrdin," Markov said.

Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroyev and Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov are two such possibilities for Yeltsin. Neither has a national following, and their nominations would make Chernomyrdin seem more and more like Yeltsin's hand-picked successor.

Yeltsin on Monday made former Fuel and Energy Ministry chief Sergei Kiriyenko, 35, the acting prime minister. Yeltsin could nominate Kiriyenko -- who only came to Moscow last year and has never been considered a candidate for 2000 -- to the job permanently. Kiriyenko has close ties to Nemtsov but is an unlikely successor.

Another option is Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the small but noisy democratic opposition Yabloko faction, who has previously scoffed at chances to join the government.

Yavlinsky has already announced he wants to run for president. On Monday, he said he might take the prime ministerial job if he was given a free hand at drafting a new Cabinet to his liking.

Perhaps the only explanation to Monday's dramatics nobody bought was the one served up by the Kremlin itself -- that Yeltsin was unhappy with the government's economic policies and wanted to infuse new blood into the government.

"Yes, today Boris Yeltsin's chief concern is succession, and by letting Chernomyrdin go he plans to solve this matter," the Izvestia daily wrote on the front page of its Tuesday edition.

"But how -- that's a big question," Izvestia said. "The selection process is still foggy."