Political struggles restart in Kremlin Yeltsin, confined to bed, still provokes his foes

November 01, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- A nasty new round of political infighting has engulfed the Kremlin, with President Boris N. Yeltsin now confined to his bed in preparation for heart surgery that may occur in less than a week.

Even though Yeltsin canceled all of his meetings this week, he managed to provoke his opponents by endorsing the appointment of a wealthy entrepreneur to the National Security Council.

The president's chief of staff, Anatoly B. Chubais, an aggressive advocate of market reforms, became the lightning rod for the criticism.

The controversial appointee was Boris Berezovksy -- whose wheeling and dealing has even attracted a couple of assassination attempts. The press and Communists read the appointment as the latest attempt by Chubais to win support for himself in the power struggles he has tended to win since he returned to the Kremlin last summer.

Chubais, the presidential gatekeeper since Yeltsin was re-elected in July, is believed to be behind last summer's firings of members of the so-called "party of power" the hawkish, undemocratic military and intelligence chiefs, and the sacking last month of national security chief Alexander I. Lebed.

In many circles, he was admired for this. But his obvious campaign to consolidate Kremlin power in his own hands has touched a raw nerve among many Russians.

The appointment of Berezovsky, a perceived crony, to the vaunted National Security Council was the last straw for his critics.

"A shadow government of top Russian businessmen is no longer satisfied with a role of prompter, suggesting to the main &L administrators who to appoint, to fire and what to pay," the Communist newspaper Pravda said. "The bankers want more. They want to be sitting at the controls so they can steer the structures of power."

'Covert coup'

"A covert political coup has taken place in Russia since the presidential election," Pavel Voshchanov, Yeltsin's former press secretary, wrote in Komsomolskaya Pravda. "All power is now concentrated in the hands of representatives of the clan headed by Anatoly Chubais."

Calling the appointment an invasion of the "holiest of holies," the inner sanctum of national security, Gennady Seleznyov, the Communist speaker of Parliament, demanded Chubais' resignation and refused to take part in a newly-established consultative council on which Chubais is also due to sit.

Yeltsin had hoped the four-member council, which also includes Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and Yegor S. Stroyev, head of the upper chamber of Parliament, would help avert the infighting that has been under way since Yeltsin took off to prepare for surgery.

Analysts were baffled this week by the Berezovsky appointment. Although Chubais was getting criticism for it, the Moscow press was full of puzzled debate about the rationale behind the appointment.

Berezovsky was a Yeltsin campaign backer, but he also was the largest financial backer of Lebed's presidential bid against Yeltsin in June. And he is said to be a rival of other Yeltsin financial backers who are closer to Chubais.

Ironically, the power struggles and political rows that have multiplied in Yelstin's prolonged absence have all the earmarks of the brand of intrigue Yeltsin likes to foster. The president's management style is to set up competing power centers that inevitably depend on him for arbitration.

Operation rescheduled

The latest row started just after U.S. heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, a consultant with Yeltsin's doctors, said Tuesday that the president might undergo triple or quadruple heart by-pass surgery as early as next week.

The operation wasn't expected until later in the month. And the immediacy of it, says one Western diplomat, is what set the Communists off into a fighting mode from their more recent position of general cooperation with the Kremlin. The diplomat called it "election positioning."

If Yeltsin is unable to complete his term, a presidential election will be held.

Despite the power struggles, some analysts see positive signs.

"I think the struggle going on in the public arena certainly looks unstable," the Western diplomat observed yesterday. "But it's superficial. There are a lot more stabilizing factors at work."

These would include the general freedom of the press and peaceful regional elections that started in September.

"Much of what's going on in Russia may seem abnormal for a civilized democratic state, but I don't see grounds for panic," said Sergei Oznobistchev, director of the Institute of Strategic Assessment. "It feels less stable because so much is revealed in public and Russians are not used to it."

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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