Moscow's version of political stability
By Jill Dougherty
October 15, 1999
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
MOSCOW (CNN) -- A pale Russian president walks slowly out of the Central Clinical Hospital, pauses at the entrance and chats for a few seconds with his press secretary about a soccer game.
This "photo op" Monday was the only glimpse the world had had of Boris Yeltsin for some two weeks. Last Saturday, after aides admitted he was feeling tired and under stress, Yeltsin was hospitalized for two days, suffering from what they called the "flu."
Meanwhile, in Russia's mountainous southern republic of Chechnya, Russian troops are locked in a major military campaign against militants. In Moscow, political warfare explodes as parliamentary and presidential elections draw closer, with the parliamentary ballot in December and the presidential vote next summer.
And corruption scandals target top Russian officials, including the president and his family.
From Yeltsin, silence -- literally. On Wednesday, the Kremlin released a 20-second videotape showing the president at home, meeting with his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, purportedly discussing Chechnya. The tape had no sound.
"It doesn't matter where the president is -- in the hospital, in his suburban residence," asserted Pavel Voshchanov, former Yeltsin press secretary. "It doesn't make any difference. There's already no president in Russia. That's the reality that we live in."
If there is "no president," who is running Russia?
"The people running the country are Prime Minister Putin and the president's daughter Tatyana," according to political observer Vyacheslav Nikonov. Many experts in Moscow agree.
All in the family
A 39-year-old working mother, never elected to political office -- running Russia? Not directly, observers say.
But Tatyana Dyachenko, the president's official "image maker," is the gatekeeper to the ailing Boris Yeltsin.
"If there's need to sign a president's decree, it's Tatyana who delivers the signature," said Nikonov. "There is no other way to get access to the president other than through her."
Dyachenko accompanies her father on all his trips, remaining out of the glare of camera lights. In a rare interview in 1997, she admitted she was the one who convinced her father to wear makeup in television appearances, who told his security agents to back off and let the people get closer.
"There are some unpleasant things that only I can tell him comfortably," she told a television interviewer. "I can do it tactfully, at the right moment ... I know how to say it."
But Dyachenko herself is now embroiled in a major financial scandal, for allegedly being given a credit card from a construction company that renovated Kremlin buildings. The president's aides deny any wrongdoing by the family.
Another potential scandal is swirling about her husband, a businessman who reportedly controlled two accounts at an offshore branch of the Bank of New York, which is currently at the center of a separate major corruption investigation.
The latest "hire"
The 47-year-old Putin, in office for only two months, is former the head of the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency for whom he worked as a spy in Germany.
As prime minister he has moved swiftly, behind the scenes, to consolidate control over Russia's so-called "power ministries" -- law enforcement and the military.
A no-nonsense man whose hobby is martial arts, Putin, in public, doesn't mince words. Vowing to destroy Chechen terrorists, he warned, "If they're in the toilet -- we'll rub them out in the outhouse." He later apologized for the crude remark, but it won the hearts of some Russians; his poll ratings immediately skyrocketed.
Putin, whom Yeltsin has tapped as his presidential successor, also has skillfully sidestepped the land mines of political intrigue. Focused almost exclusively on the conflict in Chechnya, he has reached out for support to all political factions, including other potential candidates for president.
Beneath Putin's tough exterior, however, there's a major vulnerability: He has no political base of his own and, like Boris Yeltsin's previous four prime ministers (all of that turnover coming since March 1998), he serves at the pleasure of the mercurial president.
Loyalty to the Kremlin "family," as it's commonly called, is the overriding factor in Putin's security in office. And the "family," according to observers, is now fixated on guaranteeing its "post-Yeltsin" survival. The group includes the president's immediate family and select inner-circle members.
"The Kremlin is a gigantic firm," according to Pavel Voshchanov, "where they divvy up property and decide issues of capital flow. The "family" has been working on all problems relating to their life-support system. Everything else -- the Chechen war, Russia's relationship to other countries -- is relegated to people whom the family sort of hires."
Speculation over whether Yeltsin will fire the man he "hired," as he has done with four previous prime ministers, continues to provide grist for the rumor mill in Moscow.
Quiet = stability?
But for now, as the Yeltsin presidency moves toward a rocky close, two people -- Vladimir Putin and Tatyana Dyachenko -- appear to be wielding great power.
The president, out of public view, is quiet -- for now.
In Russia, this is what passes for stability.
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