2 opposite types to be in charge of Russia With Yeltsin surgery, old-style apparatchik joins brilliant schemer

November 02, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- When President Boris N. Yeltsin goes under the surgeon's knife -- which the Kremlin says could be "any day" -- control of Russia will be in the hands of two tough political survivors from very different generations.

Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, the plodding, beetle-browed Soviet apparatchik-turned-natural-gas tycoon, officially becomes acting president during Yeltsin's heart bypass operation.

Anatoly B. Chubais, the presidential chief of staff and liberal Wunderkind who helped push Russia into a free market economy, effectively will share power with him.

The two are the longest-surviving members of Yeltsin's administration, a tumultuous five-year term that has seen even the president's best friends sacked.

They couldn't be more different, and yet their chemistry is perfect for a difficult political moment that might otherwise be explosive, say those who know both men.

The Kremlin has stressed that Chernomyrdin will be acting president during and immediately after the surgery. Yeltsin handed key military and intelligence powers -- the day-to-day business of the presidency -- over to him in September.

Yeltsin also set up a leadership council two weeks ago specifically giving both men, along with the heads of the two legislative branches, the task of ironing out conflicts between the Kremlin and the political opposition.

Chernomyrdin and Chubais need each other, says parliamentary Deputy Boris Fyodorov, a former finance minister who worked with both men.

While the constitution gives Chernomyrdin the clout to rule the country as acting president, it's safer politically for him to allow Chubais to be the lightning rod for criticism that comes with day-to-day presidential politics, says Fyodorov.

And the talents and temperaments of the two men suit their roles, says Vyatcheslav Nikonov, a political analyst who worked in the Yeltsin re-election campaign headed by Chubais.

"Chernomyrdin is quite a careful person, he has no taste for organizing political battles, he specializes in escaping controversy," says Nikonov. "Especially now, when he could be criticized, he's not going to like to have it look like he's exercising his presidential ambitions."

Chubais on the other hand, he says, is a kinetic and brilliant political schemer who seems to thrive on bruising battles.

Both men have proved remarkably loyal to Yeltsin, who has battered both of them.

Yeltsin often threatened to sack Chernomyrdin. But the prime minister never jumped ship during his four-year term even when, early in this year's presidential election season, his own popularity was double Yeltsin's.

Chubais, 41, who masterminded the privatization of Russia's economy, became synonymous with the pain wrought by that change. When the Communist Party won legislative elections last winter, Yeltsin fired him, saying, "Chubais is to blame for everything." Almost immediately afterward, Yeltsin hired him to run his re-election campaign.

Chernomyrdin, 58, is considered a centrist democrat. As prime minister, his main role is conducting economic policy and he was responsible for putting the brakes on Yeltsin's initial radical economic reform which had caused explosive inflation and extreme poverty.

Though he worked his way up the Communist Party ranks as a bureaucrat in the Soviet natural gas monopoly, he was able to adapt to the rapid changes that came with the fall of communism. He is believed to have amassed a fortune as chairman of the privatized state gas monopoly.

In an otherwise colorless Kremlin career, Chernomyrdin's popularity reached a peak in June 1995 when he successfully interceded in negotiations with Chechen rebels who had taken 1,000 people hostage in a southern Russian city.

The public will feel comfortable with Chernomyrdin at the helm, says pollster Vladimir Andreenkov. "He's an old-generation leader and he's always had quite stable ratings. He doesn't rank very high or very low as a presidential contender but people give him good ratings for the job he's in."

Chubais on the other hand has never overcome "the-most-hated-man-in-Russia" moniker he earned for his radical economic reforms. And yet, say those who have worked with him, even his enemies grant him respect.

"The way he comes to Parliament, he manages to divide, cajole and negotiate behind the scenes with people he dislikes," observes Fyodorov. "Everyone dislikes him, but everyone deals with him."

The way Chubais as deputy prime minister for economics last year pushed the '95 budget through Parliament was "quite a performance," says Fyodorov. "People were calling him four-letter words to his face; things I'd bust somebody on the jaw for. But he was calm and cold-blooded and got what he wanted."

Indeed, he seems to have his way, even at the very top.

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