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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Backing Yeltsin Big Risk

The month since the May 12 dismissal of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has demonstrated the pitiful state of Russia's virtual democracy and the president's contempt for his country's still weak democratic institutions.

Primakov was popular among not only the Communist-oriented parliamentary majority, but also the Russian people. At the time of his firing, Primakov's approval rating was 68 percent - a sharp contrast with President Boris Yeltsin's 2 percent support. In one survey, 81 percent of Russians have since expressed regret over his ouster. A broad group within Russia's political elite also has denounced Primakov's dismissal, including all of Russia's major presidential candidates.

But none of this matters in today's Russia, where the opinions of the legislature, political parties and the electorate count less than the whims of the constitutionally powerful but physically and mentally feeble Yeltsin. His control of the military and security services is much more important to the continuation of his rule than the machinery of democratic politics.

In this context, the appointment of Sergei Stepashin - a former interior minister and Yeltsin loyalist - as prime minister was initially perceived as a further step toward guaranteeing Yeltsin's personal power. However, Stepashin quickly declared that he was his own man and that he would essentially continue Primakov's stabilizing policies, uphold the Constitution, consult with the State Duma, parliament's lower house, and most important, assure that forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections would take place as scheduled.

These statements triggered a split with Yeltsin's inner circle. As a result, Stepashin is not quite in charge of his own government. At the same time, the forceful conduct of First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko, an obscure former railways minister widely suspected of corruption, has encouraged speculation that Aksyonenko has strong support from the Yeltsin family and its financial backers.

Stepashin selected two other first deputy prime ministers, Alexander Zhukov, the chairman of the Duma's budget committee, and former Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov, but each was blocked by Yeltsin's entourage. Eventually, the new prime minister was able to appoint several reputable economists to key positions.

However, their jobs were reportedly secured by another group of tycoons close to Yeltsin. Accordingly, the formation of the Cabinet looked like a messy division of the spoils among competing clans within the Yeltsin camp.

Although Yeltsin justified sacking Primakov by arguing that new energy was necessary to turn the economy around, the Stepashin government is unlikely to achieve much of substance. While the parliament confirmed the new prime minister with a commanding majority, its vote was hardly a vote of confidence; rather, it was a reflection of the perception that Stepashin was a "lesser evil" in comparison with other nominees Yeltsin could have chosen.

More important, many Duma deputies were disinclined to risk parliament's dissolution as it could deprive them of perks helpful in campaigning in the December elections. This same fear of being dissolved may help the government to persuade the Duma to approve a package of tax increases and other measures requested by the International Monetary Fund as a prerequisite for a $4.5 billion debt-restructuring deal. Even in this case, however, the Duma is likely to insist on amendments that would protect its members from charges that they increased taxes on orders from the IMF.

Many share strong suspicions that Yeltsin and, perhaps more relevant given his growing incoherence, the people around him will seek to postpone the elections and introduce some kind of emergency rule. Should this happen, the opposition's current relative complacency is likely to come to a quick end.

Similarly, if as some Yeltsin associates have hinted he attempts to "pull a Milosevic" (that is, expedite the unification of Russia and Belarus in order to create for himself a powerful position as president of the new union), most Russian political parties will join forces to block him.

In contrast to the vocal but nearly impotent Duma, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Russia's other regional leaders have real cards to play; they control numerous local security detachments and have ties to military units dependent upon them for food, housing and power.

U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration faces a dilemma: An inept Yeltsin government desperately dependent on Western aid is easy to push around as has been demonstrated in Yugoslavia, but there is a downside - the risk of unpredictable crises in a country with thousands of nuclear weapons.

Another disturbing possibility is a nationalist avalanche in Russia directed against Yeltsin and the United States as his patron.

Under the circumstances, giving the Russian president the impression that he can once again count on the Clinton administration's support in disregarding the Constitution would be a dangerous gamble. The famous patience of the Russian people cannot last indefinitely and betting on Yeltsin and his corrupt inner circle could cost the United States dearly.

Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Nixon Center and the author of "After the Collapse: Russia Seeks Its Place as a Great Power." He contributed his comment to Newsday.