Advantage Yeltsin

For the moment, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has once again outmaneuvered his Communist opponents. But the political drama currently playing in Moscow shows no sign of ending soon.

For the West, the stakes are high: NATO wants a friendly Russia and help in bringing Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to heel. Russia still needs billions in loans to stave off default on foreign debts. The safety of Russian nuclear weapons remains a concern.

Mr. Yeltsin's abrupt dismissal of Yevgeny Primakov, his third prime minister in a year, typifies his erratic behavior of late. At the same time, the move was entirely predictable, given Yeltsin's tendency to lash out when cornered and to move against any subordinate he perceives as stealing the show.

The Communist-dominated Duma, motivated purely by (undemocratic) politics and a deep enmity for market reform, drove Yeltsin into this corner. It brought to a vote a hodge-podge of impeachment counts - accusing Yeltsin of everything from dissolving the old Soviet Union to "genocide" against the Russia people because his economic half-measures (which the lower house has done everything it could to sabotage) have come up short. All five counts failed.

Many believed Yeltsin gave the impeachment effort a boost with his rash firing of Mr. Primakov, who was popular in the Duma and rumored to be a candidate in the next presidential elections in June 2000. Primakov's record was mixed: He brought the country a needed-political stability, but was unable to develop a viable economic policy. Part of the problem was Primakov's own anti-free-market tendencies; part was the Herculean task of getting the lower chamber to approve any serious market reforms.

But Yeltsin's victory showed that if he cannot have his way in the Duma without a fight, neither can the Communists. Momentum seems to have shifted: After initial reports that lawmakers would reject Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin, the president's nominee to replace Primakov, it now looks likely the Duma will acquiesce. If it votes down Mr. Stepashin three times, Yeltsin can dissolve the Duma, something legislators want to avoid.

If Stepashin is confirmed, he'll face the same problem as Primakov: How to move economic-reform legislation through parliament that will satisfy the International Monetary Fund and ensure a $4.5 billion loan to help Russia pay its foreign-debt interest. Much will depend on his Cabinet team.

More instability may lie ahead. Parliamentary elections are set for December, with the presidential elections to follow six months later. Under current law, Yeltsin cannot run again. It's not at all clear who will replace him and which forces will control the new Duma, but the prospects for democratic market reformers aren't bright. They've been set back, both by Yeltsin's failures and Russian reaction to NATO's air strikes in Yugoslavia.

The West's challenge is to stay engaged with both government and opposition while the Russian political future gets sorted out. It must be prepared to work with whomever comes to power over the next year.

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