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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Wrestles With His New Role




Boris Yeltsin's resignation on New Year's Eve was so sudden that even Yeltsin himself appears to be having a hard time reconciling himself with - and defining - his new role as former president.


Will he become an honorary figure, or will he remain a real player in Russian politics?


Yeltsin is to keep an office in the Kremlin, and a foundation is being set up for him somewhere along the lines of the Gorbachev Foundation and U.S. presidential libraries. But not quite. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, after all, had to do a television commercial for Pizza Hut to pay for a new building for his foundation; and former U.S. presidents don't get offices at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


Yeltsin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin was quoted this week by the Trud newspaper as saying that the foundation "may have a library [holding] documents of the Yeltsin era. Maybe even a mini-museum."


"But the foundation will not be just backward-looking," Yakushkin said. "It will also have a public and political character. I know that Boris Nikolayevich has been given working space in the Kremlin."


Yakushkin also said that Yeltsin would like to travel the world, but he emphasized that it was too early for any "concrete" information on both the trips and the foundation.


Yeltsin's personal future is linked to the future of his powerful entourage, known as "the family." When Putin ousted the powerful Kremlin property chief Pavel Borodin and demoted First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko this week, it was largely perceived in the press as a sign that Putin is distancing himself from those who brought him to power.


Political analysts said Wednesday that although Yeltsin may want to maintain some control over Russian politics, he is no longer in a position to do so. Now, they said, Putin holds the cards and he will decide whether to use Yeltsin and how.


During his Christmas trip to the Holy Land, Yeltsin, clearly overwhelmed by the journey and Jerusalem's spiritual atmosphere, made some puzzling statements when asked how he was finding retirement.


"I have not been in retirement yet," he said. "Keep in mind - so far, I am a holy president!"


Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper reported Tuesday that during a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Yeltsin said acting President Vladimir Putin was under his control.


"Maybe Boris Nikolayevich would like to become another Deng Xiaoping?" editorialized the reporter, referring to the Chinese leader who ruled the country without holding an official post. "The only question is whether it fits in with the plans of those who have stayed as masters of the Kremlin."


On Wednesday, the same newspaper, which is owned by Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, suggested that Borodin's proposed appointment as state secretary of the Russia-Belarus union - so far unconfirmed by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko - may be a sign that Yeltsin would become chairman of the Higher Council governing the union.


Further down the front-page story, Alan Kasayev wrote that it was just one "version," which was in fact denied by the paper's Kremlin sources. "There is no talk of these plans" in the Kremlin, Nezavisimaya's unnamed "most informed" source said.


The theory is based on the vague Russia-Belarus treaty, according to which the chairman of the Higher Council should be one of the presidents of the two countries, "unless the latter ones agree otherwise." It was unclear whether the chairman must be a member of the council, whose other members are the prime ministers and speakers of parliament.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta has a history of spinning thinly substantiated political theories in an attempt to sample the elite's reaction to some scenarios worked out by Berezovsky or other power brokers.


Political analysts interviewed Wednesday said that despite Yeltsin's honorary status as "Russia's first president," a title proposed by the Kremlin administration and adhered to by Russian politicians and media, he is unlikely to be in a position to take an active role in Russian politics and influence major government decisions.


Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, said the only two fields in which Putin may ask Yeltsin's help are relations with foreign leaders, with whom the former president has developed informal personal ties, and advice on internal political maneuvering, in which Yeltsin is a "genius."


Markov did not exclude the possibility of Yeltsin getting some figurehead post in the Russia-Belarus union. He called it a "Pinochet scenario," which "does not allow Yeltsin to rule the country but gives him a veto power over some decisions."


Other analysts were even more skeptical about Yeltsin's future power and said the Pinochet scenario is out of the question.


"Yeltsin will be turned into a symbolic figure as the 'father of Russian democracy,'" Yevgeny Volk, director of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, said in a telephone interview. Yeltsin wants to go down in history in a positive light and for that he does not need to bear any further political responsibility, Volk said.


Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Politika research center, said if Yeltsin's health permits, he may be used for delicate foreign policy missions. But his role in real politics will be "minimal."


As for the Kremlin office, Nikonov said it was a gesture of gratitude from Putin, which, just like the presidential honors accorded him during the trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, would ensure a smooth transition to retirement.