Yeltsin's Quiet Exit Puts Russia in a Bind

Premier Primakov steps into limelight as both president and the economy retreat.

When Yevgeny Primakov assumed the job of Russian prime minister two months ago he insisted that he was doing it reluctantly and harbored no further political ambitions.

But contrary to his stated modest aspirations, he has become the de facto vice president.

The physical and political frailty of President Boris Yeltsin has relegated to the ceremonial sidelines the man who once referred to himself as a czar.

The figure who has dominated Russian politics since the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse is now recuperating at country retreats while Mr. Primakov effectively runs the show until the 2000 election.

Mr. Yeltsin's weakness has provoked a consensus that Russia has had enough of strong presidents and should revise the 1993 Constitution that gave Yeltsin near-authoritarian powers.

Under current law, if Yeltsin dies before his term ends in 2000, Primakov takes over and has three months to call new elections.

Such a prospect sparks concern, as a ballot during the present economic crisis would shatter whatever steadiness the government has been able to achieve.

Besides, Primakov has had health problems of his own and there is speculation that he might bow out early.

Any doubts that Yeltsin was withdrawing from the limelight were quashed last week, when his own deputy chief of staff, Oleg Sysuyev, admitted that the president was leaving "day-to-day issues" to others. Then senior Kremlin aides accompanied Primakov to a European Union summit in Austria as though he were acting president.

"De facto is the key word. We have a de facto soft resignation of Yeltsin," says Andrei Piontkowsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based think tank.

Ironically, Yeltsin's detachment from energetic governance is seen as a stabilizing factor after a turbulent rule that saw the impetuous firing of two Cabinets this year and an ill-fated war in Chechnya in 1994-96.

Yeltsin himself is widely blamed for the maelstrom that struck in mid-August, when he abruptly fired his government in the middle of a financial meltdown and then tried to force upon parliament a new prime minister it refused to accept. The country drifted in a political vacuum for weeks until Primakov was chosen as a compromise premier.

Since then, Yeltsin has progressively faded. The savvy Primakov, a former foreign minister, has done little about the stricken economy - the International Monetary Fund has rejected his economic recovery plan, refusing to release the latest part of a $22 billion loan package.

But Primakov has managed to forge a comfortable working relationship with the opposition-dominated Duma, the lower house of parliament, that had previously obstructed Yeltsin.

"We have the most stable situation in seven years," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation, a Moscow-based research center. "An active Yeltsin was a source of turmoil in most instances. He's no longer capable of such drastic moves."

These days public criticism is mainly aimed at Yeltsin, whose popularity ratings are staggeringly low. A recent survey by the Public Opinion Foundation showed that only 3 percent of respondents approve of the president, with 89 percent lacking confidence or undecided.

The seriousness of the situation has provoked nearly every political figure to float ideas on how to change the Constitution. But this being Russia, there is no agreement on how to do it.

Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist opposition, wants to shift power from the president to parliament, and have the president elected by a constitutional assembly rather than the public.

Viktor Chernomyrdin, a presidential contender and former prime minister, suggests changing the Constitution so that Primakov acts as president until the end of Yeltsin's term in 2000 whether Yeltsin survives or not.

Alexei Lebed, a regional governor, and head of the Duma, Gennady Seleznyev, say Yeltsin should resign and Primakov should call new elections.

Moscow's dynamic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, and Alexander Lebed, governor of Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region, are seen as strong presidential contenders. But analysts believe neither man's campaign is ripe quite yet.

Analysts say the lack of consensus makes altering the Constitution unlikely, as changing it is a highly complex procedure.

Few dare articulate the worry that Yeltsin will impulsively reemerge and dismiss this Cabinet too. Most analysts believe that if such a scenario arose parliamentarians would pursue impeachment efforts with new vigor.

"Yeltsin will not fire this government," says Mr. Piontkowsky, groaning slightly at the notion. "That is in the past. He is finished politically now."

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