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Making sense of Moscow's crisis cycle

Jill Dougherty

By Jill Dougherty
CNN Moscow Bureau Chief

May 20, 1999
Web posted at: 1:48 p.m. EDT (1748 GMT)


This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.


In this story:

Thriving on crisis ...

... But what's one crisis too many?


MOSCOW (CNN) -- Sergei Stepashin, President Boris Yeltsin's choice for prime minister, had his eye on the electronic vote tally: 226 ballots and he would be confirmed by Russia's lower house of Parliament.

The Duma's voting on Wednesday was over in 27 seconds. Stepashin was in. And with that, an extraordinary week of political crisis -- extraordinary even by Moscow standards -- was over.

Over the course of a week, Russia and the world watched in stunned amazement as Yeltsin, without warning, fired his prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov; named a replacement, Sergei Stepashin; faced down Parliament on an impeachment vote -- and won; and then went on to win approval from that same Parliament for his new prime minister on the first vote.

For Yeltsin, written off the domestic stage just a few months ago as too weak, physically or politically, to influence events, it seemed a remarkable comeback.


Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin in Belgrade, Yugoslavia on Wednesday

Simultaneously, on the international stage, Russia was back. Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin's special envoy on the Balkans, was shuttling from one world capital to another, trying to mediate a peaceful settlement of the Kosovo conflict.

Yet, as often happens in Russia, things were not as simple as they may have seemed.

Thriving on crisis ...

Yeltsin set the momentous week in motion by dismissing Primakov on May 12.

Primakov was powerful and popular, especially among Communist and other opposition members of Parliament. Yeltsin has always been wary of any underling who shows political independence, and Primakov, though denying any personal political aspirations, was considered a leading candidate for president in next year's elections.

The president's opponents questioned his motives for firing Primakov, accusing him of recklessness and unpredictability. It's the third time Yeltsin has fired a prime minister since March 1998; the list includes Chernomyrdin.

The move against Primakov came on the eve of an already scheduled impeachment vote in Parliament. Furious, the Duma claimed that after a year of trying, it finally had enough votes to remove Yeltsin from office.

But when the shouting was over, Saturday's impeachment vote failed. As one member of Parliament put it, "People started to think, what will happen if Mr. President will do something against us?"


Russian President Boris Yeltsin, right, with Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin on Wednesday

Chastened by their defeat, the Duma voted on Stepashin amid rumors that if they didn't accept him, Yeltsin would replace him with someone the opposition would find even more distasteful -- perhaps one of the so-called "young reformers" the opposition loathes. Three votes against Yeltsin's nominee and he could dissolve the Duma and call for new elections.

Stepashin sailed through the vote. Was it a victory either for him or for Yeltsin? Few, if any, in Moscow think so.

"It means everyone is thinking about the new elections," said Grigory Yavlinsky, member of Parliament and head of the leading free-market party. "Nobody cares about the Russian government at the moment."

Communists charge Stepashin will simply be a caretaker prime minister, his hands tied by a president jealously guarding his power. With elections to Parliament this winter, and elections to the presidency next summer, even some free-market reformers predict little will be accomplished.

... But what's one crisis too many?

In the midst of this busy week came fresh concerns about Yeltsin's health. Spanish diplomats claimed he canceled a meeting scheduled for Tuesday with their prime minister; they said the Kremlin told them Yeltsin had "bronchitis."


Yeltsin

The Kremlin denied he was ill and, on Wednesday, released a video -- silent, showing a smiling but bloated Yeltsin with his new prime minister -- in an attempt to prove it.

So one week to the day after he set the latest crisis in motion by firing his prime minister, Yeltsin was back in his Kremlin office having survived an impeachment attempt, with his new prime minister approved, and the Duma talking about cooperating with Stepashin.

Yet few in Moscow think Russia's political crisis is over.

"We are going from one crisis to another crisis," said political analyst Andranik Migranyan. "And the crises are becoming deeper, longer and more often."

No one is calling it a victory, even for Yeltsin. The president, the government, the Duma -- all have been discredited by the crisis and its ensuing battles.

The next crisis, observers say, could be economic, bringing with it more political instability.


RELATED STORIES:
y: CNN's Jill Dougherty on the personal side of Russia's financial problems
August 28, 1998

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