Another world power, another impeachment

Russian struggle: With Primakov out, nothing can be taken at face value and everything may sink.

May 13, 1999

NOW the Washington crowd can appreciate the bafflement and dismay with which the world viewed the impeachment of President Clinton. Few beyond these shores cared or believed what it was about. Many were aghast that whatever they counted on from U.S. policy was at risk.

In Russia today, the only thing that matters is the struggle between an ailing, fitfully able President Boris N. Yeltsin and the Communists and nationalists in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, who would cut him down at any cost.

That's what President Yeltsin's firing of Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov yesterday was about. Mr. Primakov had created some confidence amid chaos, at least among Russians. To outsiders, the old spymaster was insufficiently zealous about true reform.

Today, the State Duma begins hearings on impeaching President Yeltsin. Not the sort of thing he takes lying down, even when on his back. The charges hardly matter. His foes say that everything that's wrong is his fault. The formerly privileged, for whom Communist tyranny was the good old days, are running this show.

So Mr. Yeltsin decided to demonstrate to his enemies, who like and trust Mr. Primakov, that they cannot go for his throat without losing something they cherish. In the meantime, he is promoting Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin to interim prime minister.

Impeachment, as in the United States, would not be the end but the beginning of a trial. Impeachers can say they are only putting up accusations for the upper house and high courts to judge.

But what Washington wants from Russia these days, even more than a stable economy lashed to the West, is secret help on the Kosovo crisis. Because Russia requires more loans from world financial institutions, Washington expects Moscow's opposition to be a pose. It needs Russia's channel of communication to Serbia and Russian participation in the final settlement and occupation.

But don't count on this when the only thing that matters in Moscow is the impeachment struggle. Mr. Yeltsin, who sometimes seems a mean drunk, is an appealing hero in this melodrama. He is the wounded old lion at bay before howling jackals.

But it's sad that when the United States offers a model for new democracies, the only lessons getting across are the uncertainty of the presidential term and the fun of impeachment. Until this struggle is resolved, no one can rely on Russia for help with anything. Moscow is much too preoccupied.

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