The manager behind Yeltsin Aide: The Russian president's chief of staff is not particularly liked, even by his allies, but his power is widely respected.

Sun Journal

December 05, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Perhaps nothing was more symbolic of the

schism between the old and new Russia than the day Anatoly Chubais, President Boris N. Yeltsin's chief of staff, used a personal computer at the head table during a big government meeting.

Flipping open a laptop would be considered business-as-usual in other parts of the world. But when many Russians saw Chubais do it, they saw only the impudence of a techno-brat who keeps stomping his modern, westernized footprints over the gray status quo.

He has been the gatekeeper to Yeltsin during the six months the president has been largely out of sight with heart problems and bypass surgery. With such power, Chubais is widely considered the man who is running the country.

But as the chief architect of the bridge between the stable Communist past and the uncertain capitalist future, he is also often called the most hated man in Russia.

A boyish-looking 41, he is the longest-surviving member of Yeltsin's Kremlin team. And his accomplishments are historic -- if controversial -- landmarks in modern Russia.

Chubais organized the privatization of the Russian economy.

He masterminded the political comeback of Yeltsin in an American-style re-election campaign last spring.

He out-schemed members of Yeltsin's hard-line inner circle, ousting them last summer.

Now, he is orchestrating the media campaign to politically resurrect Yeltsin himself, while the president recovers from heart bypass surgery.

His allies and enemies alike say Chubais is the consummate manager -- cold-blooded and keenly focused.

"Chubais is a spearhead of historical progress," says Igor Malashenko, head of the independent national television station NTV and a Chubais ally. "He likes radical decisions and to impose his will on other people.

"He's the kind of person that will be at the top of the tide in any era -- if he'd been born 80 years earlier, he'd be the perfect Bolshevik taking an active part in nationalization. But now, it's Western liberalism and a market-based economy."

Indeed, more than any other individual in Russia, Chubais is identified as the symbol of capitalism. Yeltsin may have been the democratic hero who stood down the tanks of hard-line Communists. But Chubais is the technician who tinkered with the economy and became the lightning rod for a nation angry over its impoverishment.

His privatization program was also viewed as corrupt because, in an ill-conceived effort to be democratic, shares of state enterprises were sold off at a fraction of their value and ended up in the hands of old Soviet-era managers.

Yeltsin fired him as deputy prime minister in January, saying Chubais "is to blame for everything." It was a sop to the Communists, who had just won the largest share of parliamentary seats.

But Yeltsin quickly rehired him, this time to head his re-election campaign, and Chubais steered Yeltsin from single-digit popularity ratings to victory.

It was not a flawless effort. Democracy-minded newspapers, the state television network and the respected NTV channel all unashamedly sided with Yeltsin in their election coverage, presumably because their financial backers were pro-Yeltsin -- and because they feared press restraints from the Communists and Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, the other potential winners.

Chubais also is under investigation for an alleged attempt by two campaign workers to take a half-million dollars in cash from government offices in June and for the cover-up that allegedly followed.

Chubais denied the two were carrying any money and called the arrests a Soviet-style trap engineered by Yeltsin's former bodyguard and adviser, Alexander Korzhakov.

Korzhakov and his allies in the government were ousted by Yeltsin a day later.

But the affair is far from dead. A supposed transcript of a June conversation between Chubais and another top Kremlin official alleges that the two agreed to hush up the arrests, which came three days after the first round of the presidential election.

Chubais denies the conversation, published by the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, ever took place. Yet Chubais' supporters cite portions of that transcript in which he refuses to let the two aides take the rap. They say it is evidence of his honor.

Though none of his accomplishments seems to be without controversy, Chubais has survived. The reason, says Alexander Bevz, a longtime Chubais ally and democratic activist, is that Chubais is one of country's few well-rounded, can-do managers.

"That's the problem with most Russian government officials who come from quite narrow environments, from a certain region or a certain state industry with no broad experience. They can't change to grasp the whole picture," says Bevz. "[Chubais'] natural inclination is to think broadly like a manager should."

Malashenko, the television chief, says Chubais has revolutionized the presidential administration. He has sought to perform much as an American president's chief of staff would -- to get government agencies to work in accord with each other.

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