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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Will Quit Soon

In announcing that the new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, would be his nomination for the presidential post, President Boris Yeltsin made it clear to Russian politicians that he is preparing to take early retirement - perhaps very soon.

Putin, who is so little known that his name has not figured in the election campaign that is already under way, has very little chance of being elected president in June 2000. Yeltsin's personal support will not add to his popularity.

But Putin will automatically become acting president if Yeltsin gives up the post before the end of his term. According to the Constitution, if the president dies or resigns, presidential power is transferred to the prime minister for three months, during which time new elections must be held. In those three months, Putin, with the combined posts of prime minister and president, would have almost unlimited power. Yeltsin and his immediate circle hope that this power would give him a jumping-off point from which to make the leap into the Kremlin through democratic elections.

And in the three months before the elections, Putin can play the same role for Yeltsin, his family and his inner circle that U.S. President Gerald Ford played for Richard Nixon after Nixon's resignation in 1974. On Sept. 8, 1974, President Ford granted a full pardon to Nixon for any laws that he might have broken, guaranteeing a halt to investigations that had been launched against Nixon. Yeltsin and his administration need a similar amnesty.

Objective conditions have arisen in Russia this year for the Communists to come to power by democratic means. Russians perceived NATO's war against Yugoslavia as a "demonstration of force" directed against Russia. The unexpected and unfounded dismissal of Yevgeny Primakov, the most popular prime minister in Russia since Alexei Kosygin, was perceived to be the result of a plot by oligarchs - bankers and other big property owners who had become anxious about the campaign against corruption. The anti-corruption measures had become much broader and had extended to the circle of people close to Yeltsin, or "the family."

Although Primakov did not belong to a political party, his government was left of center. After Sergei Stepashin's appointment as prime minister, government policy took a sharp turn to the right. As a result, left-wing forces became more active and the position of Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, was strengthened. He emerged in first place in public opinion surveys of presidential candidates.

The move to the left was also intensified by the deterioration in the economic indices and the rise in food prices caused by severe drought and a very poor harvest. In the communist past, the government subsidized the price of bread and it did not depend on the harvest. Propaganda and promises cannot argue away a fall in the standard of living.

In these circumstances, a plan was formulated to ban the Communist Party. The Communists would be provoked into demonstrating and protesting by closing the Mausoleum on Red Square and reburying Lenin's body in a cemetery in St. Petersburg. However, this plan has been postponed temporarily, since the political and economic elites realize that demonstrations might not occur, and respect for government might simply fall still further.

There was only one remaining way to prevent a Communist victory - uniting the center-left political groups and small social democratic organizations with the regional governors, leaders of the national republics and the mayors of large cities. This plan was put into operation at the beginning of August when the Fatherland and All Russia political movements formed a coalition. It put the upper house of parliament, the Federal Council - consisting of governors, national republican leaders and the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg - in opposition to the president.

This new political coalition will ensure that the right wing is defeated in the parliamentary elections, but it does not guarantee a victory over Zyuganov and the Communist Party. To achieve that, the new bloc needs a genuinely popular leader. The only possible candidate is Primakov, who stands outside parties and blocs.

When Primakov was made to retire in May, he announced that he was leaving politics and would write his memoirs. In October, he will turn 70. But his publishing plans have been interrupted for the moment. He must, literally and figuratively, save the fatherland by becoming leader of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc and putting his name forward as a candidate for the presidential elections in 2000.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who has frequently announced his intention of contesting the presidential elections and who established the Fatherland bloc, has probably agreed to take the post of prime minister. As a talented organizer but a mediocre politician, this role suits Luzhkov better than the presidency.

A combined ticket of Primakov and Luzhkov would almost certainly guarantee Primakov's victory in the presidential election. But the hopes of the new bloc for the State Duma elections in December are premature. The Fatherland-All Russia bloc is not a political party, but a coalition of elites. It opposes Yeltsin but is based not on the people, and not even on the middle class (which does not yet exist in Russia), but on governors and mayors. It is a revolt of the boyars against the tsar.

For the tsar himself, the boyars may be more dangerous than a popular uprising. This is why Yeltsin has begun to prepare his departure from the throne in favor of a personally selected successor. He hopes to end the game in a draw. The completely unexpected "Putin move" took everyone by surprise. But the "Primakov countermove" was even stronger. The end game is very close.

Roy A. Medvedev, the author of Let History Judge, is a Russian historian living in Moscow. His latest book Kapitalizm v Rossii? was published in Moscow in 1998. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.