The logic in Yeltsin's madness

August 18, 1999|By Steven Merritt Miner

RUSSIAN President Boris N. Yeltsin has again tossed a political hand grenade before darting back behind the Kremlin's walls, leaving observers to wonder at his increasingly inexplicable behavior.

With Mr. Yeltsin's firing of Prime Minister Sergei V. Stepashin last week, and his appointment of the virtually unknown Vladimir V. Putin as his successor, a total of four people have served in that position during the past 18 months.

In the Western media, commentators struggling to explain the string of firings have concentrated on Mr. Yeltsin's poor health, in many cases linking his frailty to his concern to secure his legacy: a more democratic Russia, set on the path of market reforms, increasingly linked with the West and free from the menace of a Communist resurgence.

The Russian media have a much more jaded view of his record and motives. Seen up close, the president's legacy seems much less impressive and scarcely worth defending. Russian politics are increasingly corrupt, opaque and authoritarian, thanks in part to Mr. Yeltsin's own constitution, which invests enormous powers in the president.

Economic collapse

Following last August's economic collapse, market reforms have lost much of the luster they once seemed to have. The ruble has lost 75 percent of its value this year alone, and millions of Russians find it hard to make ends meet, even if they are fortunate enough to receive a paycheck.

Relations with Western countries have gone from bad, with NATO expansion, to worse, with the East-West rift over Kosovo. Finally, despite Mr. Stepashin's assurances to the contrary when he visited Washington last month, Russian communism is far from being a spent political force.

The Communist Party controls the largest bloc of seats in the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, and it looks set to gain from an anti-Yeltsin political backlash in the parliamentary elections set for December.

All segments of the Russian public are heartily tired of Mr. Yeltsin, whose public approval rating hovers at the statistically insignificant 7 percent level.

The Russian Federation is threatening to come apart at the seams. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the underlying forces of Russian political and social life have been centrifugal, drawing power away from Moscow, where it lay during the centralized Soviet years, to the provinces and autonomous republics.

Undercutting power

While the world's attention has been focused on the political dust storms and instability in the Russian capital, regional power bosses have steadily undercut the center's claims.

Mr. Yeltsin and the Duma may issue decrees, but local bosses enforce the rules as they see fit.

Among many political failures as president, one of Mr. Yeltsin's most serious has been his inability, even his unwillingness, to create a political party that would unite his supporters and create a country-wide organization that could reach beyond Moscow into the provinces.

He seems to have feared that a party might slip beyond his control and, like Ross Perot, he would find that his creation could live on without him. Lacking the presidential imprimatur, supporters of political liberalization, westernization and market economics have been forced to form their own microparties, which war with one another and split the reform vote.

Meantime, the president's rivals have slowly built up party structures that pervade the vast hinterlands of Russia, where Mr. Yeltsin's political authority hangs in midair, with no local roots.

Politically ambitious people who did not want to join the Communist Party or the various nationalist and right-wing groups, such as Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky's misnamed Liberal Democratic Party, have faced two choices during the Yeltsin years.

First, they could work within the Moscow-based system, advancing by playing the Byzantine game of Kremlin politics, hoping to catch the presidential eye or the patronage of one of the capital's financial or political power barons to climb the slippery political pole. This is the route chosen by most of Yeltsin's prime ministers, including Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin, an ex-KGB colonel, has no experience in the world of electoral politics, and he has no ready constituency within Russia at large or in the legislature.

Mr. Yeltsin has explicitly endorsed him as his own successor in the presidential elections scheduled for next June. That endorsement might be the kiss of death, leaving an electorally inexperienced Mr. Putin to campaign with the full weight of Yeltsin-era corruption on his back.

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