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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Yeltsin As 'Lame Duck'

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 3 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Boris Yeltsin's decision not to run for a third term as Russian president is likely to introduce both a new term and some new problems for the Russian political system.

By ruling out a future run for re-election in the year 2000, Yeltsin becomes what is known in American parlance as a "lame duck," an official who has announced that he will not run again or one who is prohibited from doing so by constitution or statute.

But the term is less important than the consequences it denotes. By announcing this early in his second term that he will not run again, Yeltsin is likely to discover that he faces three problems long familiar to American lame ducks.

First, he will discover that he has in effect launched the campaign to succeed him.

While various Russian politicians already have signalled that they are interested in running for the place that Yeltsin now holds, most of them have been extremely cautious and cagey in pushing themselves and their ideas forward.

Now that Yeltsin has taken himself out of the race, he will find that they will become far more numerous and far more active. And they will find that their every word and action will be evaluated far more closely than ever before.

Just as in the American political system, so too now in Russia, this race will introduce or exacerbate conflicts within the political class and may claim some early casualties if the candidates currently leading the pack do not stand up to this intense public scrutiny.

Second, Yeltsin will find that even his allies will be less attentive to his views.

As every American lame duck discovers, Yeltsin will now find out that the people who have supported him in the past will begin to move away, betting on a future leader now that their current one has ruled himself out of the running.

These current supporters will do so because Yeltsin, again like his American coutnerparts, will not be able to promise them benefits over the longer term or threaten them with political reprisals should they cross his will.

Even more, the fact that Yeltsin won't be running means that these current supporters won't have to worry about gaining his support or avoiding his opposition in the upcoming vote. He will no longer have any, and thus they will not be inclined to defer to him as they have in the past.

And third, as a result, the Russian president will find it ever more difficult to impose his will on his own administration and thus maintain a consistent policy.

This last point may be especially important. Yeltsin has assembled a remarkable team of leaders, but the differences among them are striking and have already been on public view.

Now that Yeltsin has taken himself out of the reelection campaign, these differences will be further magnified, as many of those on Yeltsin's own team seek to position themselves either to succeed him or to win a place in some future administration.

In the short term, at least, this development will further limit Yeltsin's ability to maintain a single and consistent policy in many policy areas. Instead, he may now preside over an ever more divided government whose members are pointing in different directions.

And in the contemporary Russian situation, such divisions are likely to make it harder still for Yeltsin to continue to promote the political and economic transformation of his country.

When Russia made what Yeltsin likes to refer to as its "democratic choice," neither he nor most of his countrymen anticipated everything involved in that decision.

He and they certainly were not thinking about the problem of "lame duck" administrations, even though they are a regular feature of American democracy.

And when Yeltsin made his announcement, he was likely not aware of either this American term or its consequences for him and for Russia as well.
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