Yeltsin's desperate game

Currently in Russia there is only one serious destabilizing force - President Yeltsin, himself, and his inner circle, identified as "The Family."

It's the only force powerful enough to sack a prime minister - again - for no obvious reason, shuffle the Cabinet, institute proceedings against political opponents, and begin a new Caucasian war. It's also the only force powerful - or desperate - enough to keep concerns alive among Russians that it would remove Lenin's body from Red Square, ban the Communist Party, declare a state of emergency, or postpone elections.

The Family's logic has little to do with the interests of Russia as a state, such as the promotion of democratic reform and a market economy. Certainly, Mr. Yeltsin is sincere in his stated anti-Communist motives - but the Communists returning to power is a threat long gone. No serious analyst believes the Communist Party could win a national election anymore.

The Family's aim in its lurching machinations is to prolong, at all cost, its political existence, to somehow guarantee its influence and financial prosperity after the presidential elections of July 2000, when Yeltsin's term ends.

And this is the logic behind this week's sacking of Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and the appointment of former security chief Vladimir Putin as his replacement.

Mr. Stepashin's only real failure was not to support the Kremlin actively against its most dangerous political rivals. Among them are Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his ally, independent media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, and ex-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

Stepashin failed to prevent the Kremlin's worst nightmare - the formation of a moderate reform alliance of influential regional governors with Luzhkov - an alliance that's likely to include Mr. Primakov, the leader in public opinion polls for the presidency.

This bloc has bright prospects in December parliamentary and June presidential elections.

Stepashin, certainly not disloyal to Yeltsin, didn't show the kind of super-loyalty The Family desires. His inclination was to compromise and not use the strong hand his position would allow to crush any measures or forces that didn't suit The Family. For example, having to deal with pro-Communist Duma legislators, he couldn't always support tough anti-Communist measures. His Cabinet choices and policy priorities weren't always in lock step with The Family.

So the president chose a new crown prince, Mr. Putin, who is more likely to go to the very limit under any circumstances for The Family. When a career special service officer, having not the least experience in political spheres of state activities, is appointed prime minister, it's a message that characterizes the sort of tasks he's expected to carry out.

There's every reason to believe the Duma will approve Putin on Monday. Not because legislators like him, but because the Duma wants to avoid being dismissed, which is what the Constitution requires if it doesn't approve a nominee for prime minister. Legislators facing elections in December prefer having their headquarters in the comfortable Duma, not out on the street.

But whether Putin can play the role of crown prince is the question. He certainly has all the tools at his disposal: absolute support from state TV channels; and more money in the election treasury for Yeltsin's appointed candidate than in the treasuries of all the other candidates combined. And he can use state structures and law enforcement to complicate life for his opponents. But none of this guarantees a victory for The Family candidate.

Putin - with no proven political ability - ranks zero in popularity ratings. The electorate doesn't even know who the man is. And with polls showing Yeltsin with a 90 percent disapproval rating, his blessing is more a political kiss of death.

Stepashin was quite popular in comparison with Putin. By rejecting him for a dark horse, Yeltsin has taken the most risky gamble of his career. If he fails, there's little time to try another.

*Vyatcheslav Nikonov is president of the Polity Foundation in Moscow. He was head of political analysis in Boris Yeltsin's 1996 presidential campaign.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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