You're Fired! You're Hired
In a burst of vigor, the ailing Yeltsin proves he's still in charge by upending his Cabinet
By Bruce W. Nelan
(TIME, April 6) -- Of all the transformations under way in Russia, the one at the top will have to be watched most carefully: Boris Yeltsin is turning into Leonid Brezhnev right before our eyes. In a rerun of the Kremlin drama circa 1978, the President is ever more frail and shambling, his eyes glazed and his speech slurred. He rules like a czar--from on high, without much attention to detail, and by decree. Like Brezhnev, Yeltsin has no intention of stepping down, and the people around him will do anything to keep him in power, lest they lose their own. Last week they launched what may be their campaign for re-election in 2000 by shoving aside the most potent rivals to the President.
Feeble as he is, Yeltsin is still a cunning politician with an almost feudal authority over the ambitious operators in his shadow. He can crank up short bursts of devastating energy, as he did last week when he fired Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin and his entire Cabinet. With one sharp stroke, Yeltsin eliminated everyone he thought might be a threat to his political future. He left the reactionaries, the nationalists, the billionaire crony capitalists to pick themselves up, to scheme and struggle over whom to back and how to lay hands on still more of the vast wealth of Russia. During Yeltsin's most recent illness, they had begun to act as if his reign had ended and he didn't have to be taken into account. Yeltsin knew that. Now the schemers know they were mistaken.
About 8:15 a.m. last Monday, very early for him, Yeltsin and his motorcade (including the ever present rolling hospital, nicknamed "the catafalque") swept into the Kremlin. When Chernomyrdin arrived a bit later, Yeltsin called him into the presidential office, presented him with a medal for service to the state and fired him. Normally, this would have been a full day's work for Yeltsin, but he didn't stop to rest. He phoned his incessantly controversial First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoli Chubais, the inflicter of Western-style economic reforms, and fired him.
Then Yeltsin did the same to the Minister of Internal Affairs, General Anatoli Kulikov, the hard-line chief of 500,000 police and 257,000 well-equipped internal troops. The President paused then for a chat with Minister of Defense Igor Sergeyev and federal security chief Nikolai Kovalev. Just routine, said presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky. Not entirely, says another Kremlin official. That chat was "a prudent precaution," simply common sense when you have just fired Kulikov, an unreconstructed hawk with enormous ambition and many troops within marching distance of the Kremlin.
Finally, Yeltsin ousted the rest of the Cabinet. It's clear now that while he intends to reduce the total number of ministers, most of those purged will be reappointed, starting with Defense Minister Sergeyev and Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov. This was a domestic political coup and had nothing to do with international or defense policy. No one knew that at first, though, and when the news burst out of nowhere, the Clinton Administration was badly shaken. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was on her way to Europe to meet Primakov, among others, and she asked for reassurance that he still had a job. Primakov officially said yes in public in Cologne, with a grin, and vowed that Russian policy would not change.
Russian-U.S. agreements, Primakov assured a group of reporters, "do not depend on personalities." It is exactly what one of his famous predecessors, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, used to say. But of course personalities do matter, and Vice President Al Gore had spent four years cultivating friendly working relations with Chernomyrdin in a bilateral Russian-U.S. government commission. Gore believed he was investing in a future in which both of them might be President.
Chernomyrdin was beginning to think so too, which is probably what got him in trouble. He was hinting so plainly that he was considering a run in 2000 that Yeltsin dismissed him. In fact, by week's end Chernomyrdin had confirmed his intention to run for President. Kommersant, a leading daily, concluded, "We can pronounce the once superpowerful Premier politically dead." But Boris Berezovsky, one of Moscow's most influential business tycoons, talked with Chernomyrdin last week and came out a booster. Only a week before, he had declared on television that Chernomyrdin was "unelectable" in 2000. Now Berezovsky says the former Prime Minister is "full of energy to fight for the presidency," a run Berezovsky says he is ready to support "unconditionally." This is puzzling because Berezovsky is also an unpaid adviser to Yeltsin's inner circle.
The message Yeltsin wanted to broadcast loudest last week was, I am still in power. He and a small group of relatives and close advisers that include his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and his chief of staff Valentin Yumashev--dubbed "the Family" by Muscovites--may intend to keep him there as long as he is breathing. True, the Russian constitution says he cannot serve more than two terms, but Yeltsin expects the courts to rule next fall that his first term didn't count because he was elected under the old Soviet system.
Yeltsin had become suspicious of Chernomyrdin, the most loyal and humble of ministers since 1992, and that sealed his departure. But the Prime Minister had also made powerful enemies recently among some of the ever plotting oligarchs of Moscow's financial world. These powerful capitalists, who have considerable influence with the Family, suspected that Chernomyrdin had begun to favor their rival, Vladimir Potanin of the Oneksim banking group, in deals involving state assets.
Chubais had been constantly under fire and has been booted out of office before. This time his dismissal may have been hastened by his heated public squabble with Berezovsky. After an exchange of personal attacks in press interviews, Berezovsky declared that Chubais' days in government were numbered. The oligarchs followed through, it seems, using their access to the Kremlin's front office. One recent morning, a prominent Moscow businessman says, a report "was placed on the President's desk"--obviously by one of Yeltsin's top aides--and Yeltsin actually read it. The memo warned that Chubais' rosy reports on the economy and payment of salaries to state employees were not only inaccurate but were "disinformation." Says the businessman: "Yeltsin knows nothing about the economy, but he is not an absolute idiot." The President was furious, the businessman says, and Chubais was on his way out.
That may be part of the story, but Chubais was going to leave anyway. He handed in his resignation in February, though he had not named a firm date. He told the President he wanted to be appointed head of United Energy Systems, the national power company. "We'll think about it," Yeltsin said.
According to a well-informed account, Chubais made sure his enemy Kulikov went out the door with him. The Internal Affairs Minister, who longed to roll back the privatization Chubais has engineered, had leaked information so damaging to some of Chubais' deputies that they had to resign. Chubais was determined to get him for that, and the oligarchs were perfectly happy to see Kulikov go. He was no respecter of private property. And he seemed eager to be a political kingmaker in 2000, using his ministry troops and snoops to back Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, another foe of the free market.
On Friday Yeltsin named his choice as the new Prime Minister. He is Sergei Kiriyenko, 35, who had been busy filling in at the job for four days. Kiriyenko is a potential reformer, a petroleum expert who held the post of Minister of Fuel and Energy in the old Cabinet. He's a former communist youth leader and oil-company executive from the reform-oriented city of Nizhni Novgorod. He arrived in Moscow last year, along with Boris Nemtsov, who became a First Deputy Prime Minister. Nemtsov, the former mayor of Nizhni Novgorod, is one of Yeltsin's favorites, and he will probably reappear in a senior post in the next Cabinet. The combination of Kiriyenko and Nemtsov might provide a small boost for reform, the lagging pace of which Yeltsin has been insisting was the main reason for the mass firing. American energy officials who knew Kiriyenko during his brief seven months as Fuel and Energy Minister say he is a bright, able technocrat who is easy to work with.
The Duma must approve the President's nominee and will almost certainly go along with Kiriyenko. The communists who dominate the parliament are complaining that he is too young and too inexperienced. But they are expected to accept him in due course. If they reject the President's choice three times, Yeltsin can dissolve parliament and call new elections. Most members of the Duma will not want to risk their jobs on the issue, so they might vote against Kiriyenko once or twice, then accept him in the end.
Yeltsin's choice of a young newcomer implies, of course, that he intends to be the boss and that it matters little who is Prime Minister. That could be a bad thing for a Russia that desperately needs continuity and leadership. For years Yeltsin's bursts of energy have been followed by illnesses and disappearances, vacations and prostration. He seems to have no reserves of stamina left, and the breakdowns are coming more frequently now. After he ousted the government last week, he tried to pump himself up again for a summit session with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac. But at their meeting outside Moscow, Yeltsin looked confused, weak and fumbling. The price he pays for proving he is in charge is growing higher every day. What is good for Boris may not be good for Russia.
--Reported by Paul Quinn-Judge and Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow and Douglas Waller/Washington
In Or Out?
OUT: Victor Chernomyrdin Prime Minister He lasted more than five years and has just announced that he will run for the presidency in 2000
OUT: Anatoli Chubais First Deputy Prime Minister A reformist in-and-outer, he wants next to head the national power company
OUT: Anatoli Kulikov Minister of Internal Affairs A hawkish general who grew dangerously powerful, he may now oppose Yeltsin
BACK IN: Sergei Kiriyenko Acting Prime Minister The Duma doesn't like him much, but will probably vote to confirm him anyway
BACK IN? Boris Nemtsov First Deputy Prime Minister A reformer and one of Yeltsin's favorites, he is expected to be reappointed soon
BACK IN: Yevgeni Primakov Foreign Minister Yes, he told Albright, he still had his job, and nothing was going to change in relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world