For Yeltsin's Top Aide, Can-Do Skills May Be Ticket to Power in Kremlin
President Yeltsin is now bedfast, preparing for surgery scheduled for mid-November, but his administration has never been in firmer hands.
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.
The Communist Speaker of the Duma is demanding Chubais's ouster after a media and auto magnate of dubious reputation was appointed to the powerful Security Council this week. But insiders point to signs that this was an act of Yeltsin himself, not Chubais.
Chubais now effectively stands third in line in the Russian government, behind Yeltsin and Mr Chernomyrdin. Chubais and Chernomyrdin have long been allies against less-democratic players in the government, now mostly ousted. Chubais is decisive and tough-minded while Chernomyrdin has a political base in the establishment and is a strong prospective presidential candidate, so they are useful to each other.
Chubais is well-suited to the role of grand vizier of the Kremlin. His management capacities are legendary. People who have worked with him note his consistently sharp focus, mastery of detail, and decisiveness. But his chop-chop style can be abrasive, notes Mr. Fyodorov. And former colleagues note that he makes all final decisions - from the largest to the smallest - himself.
If Chubais is a tough rival in the corridors of power, he has always played by the rules and stayed within the limits of his legal authority, says Golovkov, who worked in the government in the early 1990s when Chubais was privatization chief.
Chubais, the master of detail, is also skilled in finding legal loopholes to exploit, perhaps violating the spirit if not the letter of the law, says Golovkov. "But unlike Lebed, he has some rigid principles."
His clearest principle is that he is a free-market reformer. His career has always pushed Russia in that direction. Fyodorov, although is not an admirer of some of the crucial compromises Chubais made along the way, believes that Chubais has shown himself more concerned with furthering reform than with protecting his own career.
But Chubais also was the architect of the largest privatization of any economy in the history of the world. It was an effort that sold off Russia's assets for a fraction of their value - in a highly ineffective effort to be democratic - and ended up handing many state enterprises over to their old Soviet-era managers to make them suddenly private moguls.
Chubais, says Fyodorov, "will have to live with that the rest of his life."
Chubais is an economist and manager who spent the 1980s studying reform in the socialist economies of Eastern Europe. He joined the Leningrad municipal government in 1990. His style was already formed.
"He was not the strongest scholar I've ever seen," says Dmitri Travin, who worked for him then. But he would gather strong teams around him and hold sessions to squeeze all the best ideas out of his experts in half an hour and make a decision. The decisions were always clear, and they were always his alone. This is a revolutionary style in Russia, where the traditional mode is long consultations and ambiguous decisions that protect the decisionmakers.
The Chubais phrase most often heard by his colleagues, says Golovkov: "I'm not persuaded."