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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Men Who Would Be King - Won't




Remember Sergei Shakhrai, Vladimir Shumeiko and Oleg Soskovets?


Like acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, all three were publicly anointed as heirs to President Boris Yeltsin's throne - just like arguably more presidential figures such as Alexander Lebed and Boris Nemtsov.


But like Lebed and Nemtsov, they still found that being named Yeltsin's political heir was a one-way ticket to the political wilderness.


Almost from the moment Yeltsin came to power in 1991, naming his chosen successor has been a bit of a Kremlin parlor game - a game that is hazardous for the careers of the so-called "winners." Being named Yeltsin's heir - either by the president himself or by Moscow's chatty news media - has turned out to be the kiss of death.


Following Yeltsin's announcement Monday that he wanted Putin to be Russia's next president, Gennady Seleznyov, the Communist speaker of the State Duma, said Yeltsin has "put an end to Putin's career."


"All those whom Yeltsin once called his successor have no political future now," Seleznyov said.


Previously, Yeltsin had only publicly ordained two successors, former Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov and former Security Council Secretary Lebed. The news media - feeding on the ever-churning Kremlin rumor mill - has named many more, including prime ministers Viktor Chernomyrdin and Sergei Stepashin, who was fired to make way for Putin.


"Yeltsin does not have long-lived favorites," Nemtsov said.


He should know. In August 1994, when Nemtsov, then 34, was governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Yeltsin surprised reporters during a trip down the Volga River by giving Nemtsov an unambiguous presidential endorsement.


"He has grown so much that you can already tap him for president," Yeltsin said with a grin. When Yeltsin brought Nemtsov into the Cabinet in March 1997, saying the country needed "young energetic leaders," his poll numbers soared and pundits were proclaiming him Russia's next president.


Just 17 months - and a default and devaluation - later, Nemtsov was a private citizen, having been fired along with Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko in August 1998. Today, his presidential prospects are considered slim and he leads a political party, Right Cause, that most pundits say will be hard-pressed simply to clear the 5 percent needed for representation in the State Duma.


Nemtsov can take comfort in the fact that he is not alone.


In 1996, when General Alexander Lebed came in third in the first round of presidential elections with 14.7 percent of the vote, Yeltsin - to boost his chances in a run-off against Communist Gennady Zyuganov - named the gruff paratrooper as head of his powerful Security Council. Asked at a Kremlin ceremony if Lebed was the person he would like to succeed him in 2000, Yeltsin replied "Yes."


Lebed hit the ground running. He helped orchestrate the ouster of some of his rivals - including then Defense Minister Pavel Grachev - and won praise by negotiating a ceasefire in Chechnya. But Lebed also made the mistake of taking Yeltsin's presidential endorsement too seriously. Asked by reporters if he planned to be president in 2000, Lebed smiled and said "maybe earlier."


In October 1996, just four months after his appointment, Lebed was fired by Yeltsin. Last year - despite stiff Kremlin opposition - Lebed was elected governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, although serious talk about him winning the presidency has dwindled.


In January, Yeltsin said that he had, in fact, chosen a successor - but was keeping his choice to himself. "I do not intend to violate the Constitution, but I have made up my mind about a successor," Yeltsin said. "I now face the problem of when to announce it."


Over the years, some of the speculation has been just plain silly. In 1993, for example, the media were full of speculation that Sergei Shakhrai, then a deputy prime minister, was the likely heir.


But Yeltsin then said that his successor "had to be a tall person" - ending the presidential dreams of the diminutive Shakhrai. Such a criterion, incidentally, doesn't bode well for Putin, who is a full head shorter than the president.


After Shakhrai, speculation turned to another, taller, figure: Vladimir Shumeiko, then speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, who soon made a point of pointing out his height. Shumeiko's star faded when he lost his council seat in 1995.


Yeltsin also reportedly thought Oleg Soskovets - an architect of the war in Chechnya and first deputy prime minister until he was fired in 1996 - was presidential material. During a meeting with then Belorussian Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, Yeltsin was reported by news media as pointing to Soskovets and saying: "There is the future president of Russia!" Soskovets faded into obscurity after leaving government.


One reason Yeltsin's favorites may fade is that Yeltsin himself is deeply unpopular. In theory, however, the Kremlin's control of money and news media could give a favored candidate a boost - if Yeltsin could just stop firing them.


In fact, there's been some speculation that being fired was a good omen for Stepashin's future, potentially enabling him to run for president without being saddled with Yeltsin's baggage.


Why all the talk of succession, anyway? Aren't the heads of state in democratic countries supposed to be elected, not appointed?


"Russia isn't a monarchy, but the mechanism of transferring power here resembles a monarchy," said Andrei Ryabov a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center who has written several articles on the issue of succession. "The only difference is that when Russia was a monarchy, the tsar didn't choose a successor, while Yeltsin thinks he needs to choose his."


And then there is Yeltsin's inner circle, ominously referred to by the Russian media as "the family." This Kremlin court reportedly fears prosecution if they fail to keep Yeltsin, or a friendly successor, in power beyond July 2000.


According to Ryabov, the family considered former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin as electable - but not loyal. Putin, on the other hand, is loyal, but widely seen as unelectable.


Ryabov said Yeltsin is bumping into a fundamental contradiction as his term nears its legal conclusion. On one hand, Ryabov said, Yeltsin sincerely wants to go down in history as the Russia's first democratically elected president who transferred power to a likewise democratically elected successor. On the other, he said, Yeltsin simply can't contemplate giving up power - as former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev did in 1991. "I can't very well see him retiring to give lectures and write his memoirs like Gorbachev," Ryabov said.


Yeltsin's conflicting impulses were evident in his speech Monday.


"Next year, for the first time in the country's history, the first president of Russia will transfer power to a fresh, newly elected president," Yeltsin said.


Then, regarding Putin, the president said: "I have confidence in him. And I want those who go to the polls next July to be confident in him as well," before saying, in what sounded like an order to voters, "Russians will support him."