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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Is Yeltsin Here to Stay?




At the beginning of September, the main theme of political speculation was the early retirement of President Boris Yeltsin. People put different deadlines on it: Sept. 19, Oct. 16 and even Nov. 7. Those who know the president, however, reacted to the speculation with open irony. When former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was asked about it, he cut the question off by saying, "God willing he'll leave at all."


What if he doesn't? The State Duma, parliament's lower house, is drafting a bill guaranteeing the safety of the president and the members of his family after he leaves office. From a moral standpoint, the proposal is completely monstrous. If this bill is passed, Russia will become the first country in the world to guarantee a president the privilege of walking free regardless of crimes committed in office. And not just the president, but the members of his family as well. Of course, we don't know how far that goes. Does this include his son-in-law, his grandson, his great-grandson?


This is an absurd idea and it will never work. Yeltsin is not holding onto power out of fear of punishment. If he did anything illegal, it was out of his love for power, not because he wanted to use the power to do illegal things. Certainly, he is ready to take the proposed immunity - if only in the interest of his family - but all the same, he won't give up power.


After all that has happened in Russia over the past 10 years, somebody will be served up as a scapegoat. It's one thing if they decide to dump it all on Yeltsin. It will be another matter if others are made to pay.


For the Kremlin "family," the most soothing option of all would be for Yeltsin to rule for the rest of his life and then lie in state in the mausoleum next to - or instead of - Lenin. That way, all the sins of this decade could be dumped on him. Historical justice would triumph, but no one would suffer.


"The family's" wishes to hold on to prosperity happily coincide with Yeltsin's constitutional inability to give up power. But the practical solution of how to do this - or, rather, not to do this - is not so simple. Even a coup requires an acceptable cause and reliable executors. Neither one of these conditions exists at the moment. Most importantly, the political elite cannot rally around Yeltsin like they did in 1993 and 1996. In such a situation, it's better for Yeltsin just to start all over, changing not only the rules of the game, but the players as well. And for that, he needs Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.


Sixty years ago, in a similar political climate, comrade Stalin called forward a completely unknown functionary named Nikolai Yezhov and gave him the task of dispatching with the old Soviet elite. Yezhov had no political base of his own, no allies in the power structure and was unknown to the public at large. But he kept the repressive agencies under his strict control. And after Yezhov's purge was complete, he followed the same path as his victims.


When one takes a hard look at Putin, it's hard not to ask whether he is a reincarnation of Yezhov. Of course, our times are more humane, and one has to hope that the victims of the new purges will be purged politically and not physically.


Nevertheless, the authorities cannot do without harsh authoritarian measures. If these are not aimed at the elite, then they may fall on regular citizens. The war in Chechnya, and what has come with it - a strengthened role for the repressive agencies, police control on the streets, gradual introduction of censorship in the press and on television - are the logical development of things. The whole totalitarian arsenal need not be unleashed, however. The Kremlin doesn't have to control everything. It only has to prevent resistance to its plans.


Two questions, however, remain unresolved: How far is the Kremlin willing to go and can Yeltsin maintain control of the situation once all is said and done? Putin knows his history, and Yezhov's fate is clear. Again, times are different and the worst that Putin can expect is an honorable discharge to some second-rate bureaucracy. But someone who has huge, almost dictatorial powers might not agree to leave the stage so quietly.


In this sense, Putin's reign may begin to resemble Yezhov's, and Yeltsin's touting of Putin as the next president may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.


However, Putin never had any part in Yeltsin's past intrigues and because of this, he could slide out of control and make scapegoats of all his former allies. Of course, today he is absolutely loyal. But what about six months from now?


If Putin meets expectations and becomes a "strong" prime minister, he could be too strong for the Kremlin. If he turns out weak, then the whole venture will turn into a catastrophe for Yeltsin and Putin.


Yeltsin has always maintained an exit from the crises he creates. But intuition probably won't take him so far this time. In the Kremlin, a politician can only mess up once. What if Putin is Yeltsin's fatal mistake?


Such anxieties can keep the Kremlin from taking risky steps. If anything can save the residue of democracy in Russia, it is the fear of the leaders before the results of their own decisions.


Boris Kagarlitsky is a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Comparative Politics. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.