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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Kremlin's Options




Boris Yeltsin has entered the final year of his second term. Although the Constitutional Court has already declared that he cannot run for a third term, the possibility remains that a constitutional transfer of power from Yeltsin to a successor might be violated.


This is connected to several circumstances. First, a majority of Russians view Yeltsin's tenure as extremely unsuccessful. And if the political situation develops in an inauspicious manner for Yeltsin, his tenure may start to be viewed as catastrophic or even criminal. This, in turn, could lead to political accusations against Yeltsin and his inner circle so serious that the accusers would demand serious forms of punishment. Naturally Yeltsin and his entourage are trying to use the time they have left in power to secure their future. From this point of view, it is critically important for them to not allow a politician whom they don't sufficiently trust to be elected to the state's highest post.


Second, corruption has blossomed during Yeltsin's tenure. It is highly likely that this corruption has also concerned the president's family. Thus there is the possibility that corruption charges could be brought against members of Yeltsin's family, leading to their arrest and conviction.


Third, Yeltsin is known as a politician with an all-consuming love of power - as a powerful fighter who is not afraid of battles, and who has won practically all of those he has entered. Given Yeltsin's psychological make-up, many observers predict he will take decisive steps to retain power after 2000.


Yeltsin has several possible strategies. One is the postponement or cancellation of the elections. Mass disorders could serve as the pretext, and could be provoked by a confrontation between Yeltsin and his Communist opponents or by the situation in the North Caucasus, which at any moment could explode into terrorism. Another possibility is that the presidential election results could be annulled, citing low turnout or massive infractions.


However, I will risk predicting that this will not happen. Yeltsin has more then once declared that the vote must be carried out and expressed loyalty to the existing Constitution, which he considers his own. Yeltsin also wants to go down in history as the politician who paved the way for democracy. Cancelling the elections would undermine his place in history and - very importantly - his own self-image as a democratic.


A majority of observers see a third scenario, involving Russia's unification with Belarus, as highly likely. It can be called the "Milosevic variant." After Slobodan Milosevic finished his second term as Serbian president, he was elected president of the Yugoslav Federation, and made sure most of the real power was transferred from the Serbian level to the Yugoslav level. Yeltsin might do something similar.


I believe, however, that the maximum that Yeltsin will be able to do might be called the "Pinochet variant." General Augusto Pinochet lost Chile's elections and stepped down to make way for a new president. However, justifiably fearing punishment for crimes committed duringhis rule, Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the Chilean armed forces, which gave him immunity from legal prosecution in Chile. Yeltsin could initiate a merger of the Russian and Belarussian armies and give the post of Russia-Belarus union president not all-embracing power, but simply the power of the union's armed forces' supreme commander. This would be more than enough to secure Yeltsin and members of his family against any possible political charges in the near future.


A fourth variant would be for Yeltsin to make a loyal member of his inner circle his successor. This variant would require politically and materially isolating the main rival presidential aspirants - meaning Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Thus the Kremlin will try to break off as many of the Communists' allies as possible and may initiate multiple checks of the Communists by the Justice Ministry. It could also try to provoke the Communists by removing Lenin's body from Red Square and reburying it. Were the Communists to react with mass civil disobedience, this could create the pretext for banning the party. If they did not resist Lenin's removal, they would lose a significant part of their electorate.


The Kremlin's attack on Luzhkov will include using various financial-budgetary levers to make his situation in Moscow more difficult, threatening the capital's image as Russia's showcase. However it is doubtful the Kremlin will take too decisive steps in this direction, because increasing social tension in Moscow would create problems for the party of power itself. Another likely line of attack will be an attempt to isolate Luzhkov from the political and economic elite, above all the governors. The Kremlin is already pressuring the various gubernatorial electoral blocs, particularly All Russia, not to ally with Luzhkov's Fatherland for the parliamentary elections. It is also trying to form a centrist coalition that will be an alternative to Fatherland.


Thus, the basic directions of the Kremlin's political activity are likely to be continuing the process of uniting with Belarus, but according to the "Pinochet" and not the "Milosevic" variant; continuing and increasing pressure on the Communists, possibly up to and including a ban on the party; fighting for control over the country's main mass media and financial flows in order to support its chosen candidate and limit its rivals, above all Luzhkov; and to take control of the process of forming electoral blocs.


Sergei Markov is director of the Institute of Political Studies. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.