In Term No. 2, Yeltsin Struggles To Patch Up a Torn Democracy
Three times, Boris Yeltsin has summoned the vigor to ward off the resurgence of communism - by mounting the putschists' tanks in 1991, by sending tanks against a rebellious Supreme Soviet in 1993, and by returning from ill health and single-digit public approval to win reelection last month.
But Mr. Yeltsin is opening his last term as president in an atmosphere of distraction and anticlimax.
He is no longer fighting the great ideological battles of modern history - battles that alone seem to invigorate him - but wrestling over the tedious problems of crafting democratic institutions in an atmosphere of nearly perpetual crisis.
On the surface, events appear to be moving smoothly.
His prime minister, the managerial pragmatist Viktor Chernomyrdin, was easily confirmed by the Communist-dominated lower house of parliament on Saturday. Other ministers may be appointed in coming days.
Yeltsin's inauguration - the first-ever swearing-in of a popularly elected president of an independent Russia - began at noon Friday and was over in about 20 minutes in a drab Soviet hall in the Kremlin.
At his inauguration, Yeltsin proved that he could walk normally, if not robustly, as he crossed the stage during the short ceremony, and he pronounced his oath of office with only slight slurring.
Chechnya as Yeltsin's Vietnam
Yeltsin's new beginning is eclipsed by the raging battle with separatist rebels over downtown Grozny in the Russian republic of Chechnya. Through the weekend, refugees were streaming out of the Chechen capital by the hundreds as Russian jets, helicopters, and ground forces tried to dislodge the separatist rebels.
Chechnya has become a "moral, political, and military catastrophe" that has already destroyed Yeltsin's presidency "just as Lyndon Johnson's presidency was destroyed by the Vietnam War," says Andrei Piontkowsky, director the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.
Further, Yeltsin has been suffering what his aides called a "colossal weariness" that has kept him out of his Kremlin office for over a month. His press secretary says that he will now take a real vacation for as long as two months to recuperate.
The governing team that Yeltsin is building is reassuring to the Russian democratic reformers. The presidential administration is dominated by Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia's massive privatization program who headed Yeltsin's reelection campaign, and is considered one of the best managerial minds in Russian politics.
Mr. Chubais has been an ally of Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, who has given broad hints that his finance minister - a key figure in a country with severe tax collection and spending problems - will be respected democratic reformer Mikhail Zadornov of the liberal Yabloko movement. Mr. Zadornov is currently chairman of the Duma Budget Committee.
The most direct threats to democracy and reform were in Yeltsin's own circle until a month ago, when he fired his longtime security chief, the head of Federal Security Agency, his defense minister, and others. This camp had proposed canceling the elections during the campaign, and was known as the "party of war" for its hawkishness on Chechnya.
Now, says Mark Urnov, former head of the Kremlin Analytical Center, "I do hope we will move toward becoming a normal democratic state. There are a lot of holes" in Russia's democratic fabric. Russia needs to work out a system of routine relations between the federal government and regional governments as well as between the administration and the legislature, he says.
And it must do this relatively dull work while trying to protect against any further slipping of living standards in a time of severe budget crisis.
Yeltsin's battles now are pragmatic, not ideological, says Mr. Urnov. "It's not a question of whether to have or not to have reforms, but how to implement them with the least social cost."
A more personal election fight
The Yeltsin team will almost immediately have to begin fighting another election battle, however. Regional and local elections are scheduled for this November, and the nationalist-communist opposition will be looking to consolidate its strength there.
The Yeltsin administration may try to ideologize these elections nationally as a reform vs. anti-reform vote, but in the past regional elections have been more personal and local. "So the next six months will not be quiet by any means," says Urnov.
The war in Chechnya will be a drain on the Russian budget that limits Yeltsin's options, as well as a moral burden, but Urnov does not expect it to be a dominant political issue.
Mr. Piontkowsky disagrees. As the war's cruelty rages on, it erodes Russia's democratic institutions by strengthening those who support authoritarian measures to win in Chechnya by force of arms, he says.