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For Yeltsin's Top Aide, Can-Do Skills May Be Ticket to Power in Kremlin


By Marshall IngwersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 1996


President Yeltsin is now bedfast, preparing for surgery scheduled for mid-November, but his administration has never been in firmer hands.

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Those hands, however, are not his.

His chief of staff, a youngish, red-headed, Western-style technocrat from St. Petersburg named Anatoly Chubais, has been tightly centralizing the usually dispersed and chaotic Kremlin lines of authority into a streamlined and orderly command structure.

Mr. Yeltsin's Kremlin is normally a bastion of intrigue as he fosters competing centers of power on his often deeply divided staff.

"Chubais is rapidly restoring the principle of a single center," says Alexei Golovkov, a Duma deputy and political campaign operative.

"The administration is in better order than ever before," says Boris Fyodorov, a former finance minister, now also a deputy in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

Mr. Chubais is clearly in charge. But few Russians draw comfort from that. He is one of the most unpopular men in Russia as the architect of the country's badly corrupted form of privatization. Among political elites, his recent record has cast doubt on his commitment to democratic means.

For instance, he set up a new, high-powered committee last week to prosecute large enterprises with major tax debts. The Russian initials of the committee, VChK, or Cheka, are a jarring echo of the brutal extra-legal secret police organization founded by the early Bolsheviks.

The echo is no coincidence. Chubais said this week to an audience in St. Petersburg that the committee name was a deliberate effort to convey the toughness of the campaign against nonpayment of taxes.

Chubais is also sitting in on Yeltsin's behalf on a new council that includes Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and leaders of the opposition-controlled parliament meant to find common ground between the Duma and Kremlin on legislation.

This council and the VChK are nonconstitutional bodies that, according to Sergei Markov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow center, are intended to move power out of the forums established in the Constitution. This is the latest example, he says, of Chubais's use of nondemocratic means to further economic reform.

A stronger indication of Chubais's muscle was the ouster of the popular and entirely unmanageable national security chief Alexander Lebed last month by Yeltsin. Mr. Lebed himself gave Chubais the blame for his dismissal, saying, "I was in his way." Few argue.

Chubais himself says that Russia needs a stronger, more effective state to build a solid democracy and free-market economy. "Consolidation of power means establishing a tough dictatorship within the systems of state power," he said this week, citing a saying: "To establish democracy in society requires a dictatorship within the state."

"We're tired of the state which has no power," says Mr. Golovkov. "That's why Lebed is so popular," he says, citing the retired general's can-do reputation.