More shock waves in Russia

Changes: The naming of a fifth prime minister in 18 months has not created confidence at home or abroad in Boris N. Yeltsin's government.

August 15, 1999|By Charles W. Holmes

MOSCOW -- The end of the world is near, warned some superstitious Russians, who, trusting in the country's mystical folklore, saw a bad omen in the final solar eclipse of this millennium.

Russia survived the cosmic phenomenon; it is coping, too, with last week's Kremlin phenomenon.

President Boris N. Yeltsin and his inner circle of political operatives and business tycoons produced yet another shock by naming former spy Vladimir Putin as Russia's fifth prime minister in 18 months.

Putin, a former domestic security chief, also was hand-picked as the 68-year-old Yeltsin's successor in next year's presidential elections, signaling a new phase in Russia's post-Soviet evolution -- the open fight to succeed its only democratically elected president.

At work in Russia isn't some strange alignment of the stars, but gritty, down-to-earth politics that has slowed progress on key issues with the United States -- namely, arms control and reviving the Russian economy. The campaign season has begun, with national parliamentary elections scheduled for December and the vote for president to take place next summer when Yeltsin's term ends.

Political foes called the president crazy for his latest government overhaul. It was a record, even for Yeltsin. He fired the previous prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, after less than three months on the job and replaced him with a virtual unknown.

Desperate to remain in the game as Yeltsin enters his last year as president, the Kremlin settled on Putin, 46, the loyal head of the country's domestic intelligence agency. For the first time, Yeltsin expressly designated the man he wants to replace him.

The abrupt move came a week after Yeltsin rival Yuri Luzhkov, 62, the ambitious Moscow mayor and presidential aspirant, cut a deal with Russia's regional leaders to create a powerful political coalition.

And just about every political party in Russia is attempting to convince Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister and foreign minister, to enter the fray on its team as either a parliamentary or presidential candidate. He rose in public opinion polls last year after declaring he had absolutely no interest in running the country, only to be fired by Yeltsin in May.

Never in its history has Russia had a peaceful transition of power from one democratically elected leader to another. The elections will be a crucial test of how firmly the country has embraced democracy since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Power elite

The signs are not good.

As in its communist past, Russia's political leadership is being determined by a power elite and behind closed doors. There is no history of a party system to groom candidates and promote them before the public eye. The press is only nominally free, controlled by big businessmen with political alliances and willingness to use their publications and television stations as propaganda tools -- a factor that helped Yeltsin win re-election in 1996.

Endorsing Putin as his heir on national television, Yeltsin stressed the need for free and fair elections, but he made clear his desire to anoint the next president.

Despite the uproar over yet another prime minister appointment from Yeltsin, Putin is expected to easily win confirmation from the opposition-led Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Yeltsin has adhered to the guidelines of the constitution in his unpredictable switch, and parliament does not want to go to war over the Putin nomination with their elections looming in only four months.

Besides, the position of prime minister has become irrelevant. "It simply doesn't matter anymore who is the premier of Russia. From now on, it is all election politics," said Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst.

That fact does not bode well for the recovery of Russia's economy, in crisis since the ruble crashed a year ago, nor for its short-term relations with the United States on issues such as arms control.

U.S.-Russian talks, START III, will begin this month on the next steps in reducing the two nations' substantial nuclear arsenals. But the Duma has yet to ratify the 1993 START II treaty, and with domestic politics dominating this fall's agenda, chances of its passage appear dim.

The United States has staked its Russian relations on Yeltsin and stood by him throughout the erratic times. As a result, the U.S.-Russian agenda has been modest lately, as the Clinton administration, and the rest of the world, adjusts to the parade of prime ministers since March 1998: Viktor Chernomyrdin replaced by Sergei Kiriyenko, replaced by Primakov, replaced by Stepashin, replaced by Putin.

"Yeltsin's team is concerned only with self preservation and self interest," said Alan Rousso, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. "Unfortunately they don't have a vision for the country."

Ideologies hardly matter

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