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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin, Elite Prepare for Primakov's End

Next week the Duma is scheduled to take up its on-again off-again impeachment hearings against President Boris Yeltsin, and already there is talk that this could mark the beginning of the end of Yevgeny Primakov's Cabinet.

Predictions of Primakov's firing - or a Kremlin-led gutting of his Cabinet - have been around for months. But the signs are that Yeltsin is gearing up to do just that.

This has nothing to do with impeachment, except insofar as an affront from the Duma is as good a reason as any to do what Yeltsin already wants to do.

Yeltsin has gone from insisting Primakov will be in power through 2000 to saying last month that Primakov is "useful at this stage, and then we will see." This week Yeltsin sacked one of Primakov's first deputy prime ministers, Vadim Gustov, and appointed Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin in his place.

Stepashin - a longtime Yeltsin ally who has often been named as a possible replacement for Primakov - was a hawk who helped bring about the disastrous charge into war with Chechnya.

On Wednesday, Yeltsin demonstrated primitively but effectively that he considers Stepashin to be the No. 2 man in the Cabinet - a role Primakov has awarded to someone else, Communist Yury Maslyukov. At a televised meeting, Yeltsin made a show of rearranging the seating at the table to put Stepashin at Primakov's side. "Stepashin - he is the first deputy," Yeltsin growled threateningly. As usual, he was not contradicted.

"No prime minister is indispensable, including Primakov," said Oleg Sysuyev, deputy chief of the Kremlin staff, in an interview this week. "I think the president has a number of names of people who, when necessary, can replace anyone, including the prime minister."

Talk like that had everyone from Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov to Mayor Yury Luzhkov to former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on record this week saying Primakov ought not to be fired. It also dampened a rally on the stock market, Reuters reported.

"On record" is the key phrase: Future presidential candidates like Luzhkov and Chernomyrdin might well want to see Primakov's wings clipped - though Primakov insists he has no designs on the Kremlin, few believe him, and he could probably win an election.

But no one wants to be associated with Yeltsin's mercurial and erratic-seeming behavior.

On Friday the president - who at times over the years has been chronically ill, publicly drunk, clearly confused or some days just strange - could barely make it up a short flight of steps to put flowers on a World War II monument.

Yet Yeltsin may not see things that way. He may not be ready to give up power - to Luzhkov, Primakov or anyone else. How else could one explain the decision by the savvy Kremlin doctor, Sergei Mironov, to shill for Yeltsin beyond 2000 in an interview just over two weeks ago with Komsomolskaya Pravda, the nation's most widely read newspaper?

"Today Boris Nikolayevich is in good enough shape for him to run [for a third term] in the year 2000," Mironov was quoted as saying.

The Constitution limits the president to two terms. But if the constitution were changed - for example, if it were dramatically rewritten to create a new united Russian-Belarussian state - that might clear Yeltsin's way.

Obligingly, the Russian-Belarussian union has gathered sudden momentum in recent days. Vladimir Putin, who heads both the Kremlin Security Council and the post-KGB security services, last weekend informed viewers of RTR television that new decisions had been taken on union: In Putin's explanation, Yeltsin would be the president of the new state, and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko the vice president, and both men want "maximum unification."

It is curious indeed to talk of ***concrete personalities*** plugged in to the highest offices of a state that does not yet exist - the more so when this future state is in theory supposed to be a democracy, where officials are chosen through elections.

The situation is reminiscent of 1996, when Yeltsin's best friend and Kremlin security chief, Alexander Korzhakov, publicly called for canceling the presidential elections. The world waited anxiously for Yeltsin's response.

Eventually Yeltsin rebuked Korzhakov, and said the elections would go ahead. But his remarks amounted to a less-than-ardent embrace of democracy: "I still believe in the wisdom of Russian voters. That is why the election will take place," Yeltsin said then. In other words, they went forward because Yeltsin believed, correctly, that he'd win.

Will Yeltsin rebuke Putin, as he did Korzhakov? Not likely: the world is not watching anxiously these days.

Yet in theory, democracy is just as much at stake. This is so even though Yeltsin seems to sincerely value - and jealously guard - his role in helping democratic processes grow here. For example, he has criticized Primakov's talk of having the Kremlin, and not local voters, select the powerful governor of each region.

But Yeltsin may also understand democracy as "democrats" like himself in power instead of Communists - which is roughly how Yeltsin the memoirist justifies the events of 1993 leading up to parliament in flames.

Or, he may sincerely prefer democracy - but personally no longer be able to afford it, if it involves leaving the Kremlin.

Yeltsin has ruled over one of the world's most corrupt governments. So it would not be an unreasonable act to lend an ear to the Communists - who say Yeltsin himself is corrupt.

Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov, a man Yeltsin clearly fears, talks vaguely of having ***kompromat*** on the Kremlin's "inner circle" - a coy term that seems to include at a minimum Yeltsin's daughter. And while Skuratov is something of a windbag, his credibility has been shored up by the support of Swiss Prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who says she has shared materials with Skuratov about Kremlin corruption and Swiss bank accounts.

It is perhaps relevant that the first signs of rift between Yeltsin and Primakov appeared when Primakov offered a vague "political peace pact" to the Duma. One part of the pact laid out what a Russian president should expect upon retirement. It stated specifically that former presidents could ride for free on all types of public transport (except taxis) - but said nothing about presidents enjoying the sort of immunity from all prosecution that is held by, for example, members of the Russian parliament.

Russian press reports said at the time that the Kremlin was floating its own retirement packages, all of them specific on immunity, some even granting Yeltsin lifetime membership in parliament. The Kremlin attacked Primakov's plan. It was withdrawn, redrafted and resubmitted - complete with, among other things, ironclad immunity guarantees.