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Analysis From Washington: Who Speaks for Yeltsin?

  • Paul Goble



Washington, July 1 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin's efforts to put together a winning electoral coalition have led him to reshuffle and expand his team to include a variety of individuals who are saying very different and often contradictory things.

Such behaviour is typical at the end of almost any political campaign: each candidate is interested not only in reassuring his basic supporters that he is with them but also in sending signals to potential supporters that he offers them something as well.

But in Russia today, such actions by the Russian president reopen a question often asked in the past: just who really does speak for Yeltsin?

Since the first round of the presidential vote on June 16, Yeltsin has brought in as head of his Security Council retired General Aleksander Lebed, a man who this week has displayed a kind of crude Russian nationalism that will likely offend as many as it attracts.

At the same time, the Russian President has sacked his unpopular defense minister and three close advisors. But the impact of their departures may be more apparent than real: there were suggestions in the Russian and Western press at the end of last week that at least some of these shadowy figures may continue to be influential.

Moreover, Yeltsin has distanced himself from the reformer Anatoliy Chubais even as he talks to reformer Grigoriy Yavlinskiy about forming some kind of block of democratic forces. And while that is going on, Yeltsin's own Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has had conversations with communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov about the possibilities of cooperation between the two.

Because each of these men has taken very different and even contradictory positions on a number of key issues -- subsidies for agriculture, compensation for inflation losses, and Russian policy toward her neighbors and the West, to name but three -- it is increasingly difficult to say just what Yeltsin does stand for or where he will take the country after his probable reelection.

That difficulty is compounded by Yeltsin's frequent change of course over the past five years.

But even more disturbing from a policy perspective is the Russian president's tendency to keep around himself people he has supposedly removed for good and to distance himself quickly from those he has only recently brought on board.

Thus, in the past week, Yeltsin has indicated that he remains close to several of the people that he and Lebed had purged from the presidential administration only a few days earlier. And he may now be forced to distance himself from the recently appointed Lebed now that the latter has said some things that have disturbed many in both Russia and the West.

Again, there are several possible readings of just what this means. On the one hand, this pattern may simply indicate that Yeltsin is working toward a kind of consensus typical of democracies and that the evident messiness simply reflects the difficulties of the Russian transition from the past.

On the other, it may indicate a style of rule that draws much from Russian traditions of the good tsar who keeps his bureaucrats battling among themselves in order to maintain his own authority.

The answer probably lies somewhere in between, but one thing is certain: the vote this week will not resolve it, nor will it enable anyone in Russia or in the West to know just where Yeltsin will be heading in the future.
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