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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tsar of All the Russias?

The Russian president is a spent force politically, physically and intellectually, and he still rules, despite the fact that he doesn't have any support to speak of," Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the old Soviet Union, said in June. "Protesters in the streets of Russia carry the portrait of Josef Stalin. Well, we probably have a Stalin - a Stalin of a different kind."

As usual, Gorbachev was less than half right. The protesters carrying Stalin's picture are almost all pensioners, sad but without political significance. And Yeltsin is no Stalin. He doesn't kill people, and unlike Stalin - who remained clever and alert to the day he died - Yeltsin is in steep physical and mental decline.

But Yeltsin is not a spent force politically, because he has the support of "the family."

Russia is an economic wreck, and the primary aim of most government ministers is to loot the ruins one more time. There will be elections for the State Duma in December, and then for the all-powerful presidency in summer 2000, and Yeltsin should be doomed to defeat. But far from it: His strategy for hanging onto power is getting clearer by the day.

"The family" are not blood relations, although Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana, plays a major coordinating role. They are a loose circle of cronies who include Yeltsin's most loyal political aides and some of the country's richest men, like Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich.

These men owe their wealth in large measure to favors granted by the Yeltsin government, and they stand to lose everything they have not hidden abroad, if the next government favors a rival faction. Since Yeltsin has become almost unelectable, their strategy is directed more at avoiding the election than winning it.

The model is provided by Belarus, a post-Soviet state where a fragile national identity, much eroded by long-time immersion in the Russian and Soviet empires, collapsed under the pressure of economic decline. In 1994, voters in Belarus elected a former state farm boss, Alexander Lukashenko, on a platform that basically promised to bring back Soviet times - including reunification with Russia.

Lukashenko never managed to interest Moscow in this proposal. Why would 150 million struggling but resource-rich Russians want to take on 10 million impoverished and resource-poor Belarussians? So the Belarussian boss resorted to increasingly suspect measures to hang onto power, including a 1996 referendum that rewrote the constitution to give him semi-dictatorial powers - and postponed the next presidential election from 1999 to 2001.

There were protests in Belarus in July on the date when the presidential elections really should have been held, but Lukashenko's police broke them up with clubs and tear gas, a usual practice. Lukashenko's rule is secure enough - and now he's going to get his union with Russia as well. The announcement was made in late July.

You can see what's in it for Lukashenko. He gets to be vice president of the new federation of Russia and Belarus, whatever it will eventually be called, and Moscow is implicitly committed to defending his rule in order to preserve the union. But what's in it for Moscow?

If Russia becomes a part of a bigger federation (even one whose citizens are 94 percent Russians), then presumably it will need a new constitution. That document might well declare that the existing Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, automatically becomes president of the new federation. It might also transfer most of the powers of the Russian president to this new office, and set the date for the first popular election for president of the new union five years hence - in 2004.

That would solve all of "the family's" problems, if it worked. But it won't. Russia is too far gone.

An immense reservoir of patience, goodwill and sheer inertia has held Russia together for the past eight years, since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. The population has borne every insult to its intelligence and every theft of its patrimony that the new elite - which is mostly the old elite in new clothes - has heaped upon it. But, they can't get away with this one.

It might get by in Moscow, where some people are still making money and where Yeltsin's leading rivals are allowed a certain space within which to operate. But in the provinces, where almost everyone is desperate and their patience is exhausted, it simply will not be accepted. Many regions will simply cut their ties to Moscow. It doesn't require a rebellion; it requires a simple repudiation of Moscow's authority and a refusal to forward tax revenues.

Last spring, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which includes many of Russia's leading politicians, warned that the "magic glues" that hold the vast Russian state together were beginning to dissolve, and urged immediate elections to give back to the government its political legitimacy. "To wait until the elections in 2000 is extremely dangerous," it warned. So how will Russians react to a maneuver that negates the elections entirely?

One of the monarchy's official titles before 1917 was "Tsar of all the Russias." The time when we talk of 'the Russias' in the plural again may not be far away.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. He contributed this comment to the Moscow Times.