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Russia: Skuratov Vote Causes Unprecedented Humiliation For Yeltsin

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 23 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Krasnoyarsk governor Alexander Lebed was blunt on Wednesday after the Federation Council rejected for the second time in five weeks the resignation of Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, despite President Boris Yeltsin personally lobbying senators to remove him.

The words of Lebed, a presidential hopeful, reflect the mood of most politicians and observers in Moscow, surprised by the result of the vote.

"On April 21, 1999, the presidential power collapsed in Russia. Russia is like this. There must be a strong power here, otherwise there will be anarchy and blood."

According to political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Moscow Center of Strategic Studies, Lebed's words ring true.

"This is a categorical statement [by Lebed], but there is a great deal of truth in it. Wednesday's vote is an unprecedented humiliation for Yeltsin. It is a serious affront from regional elites [forming the Federation Council.] I think Yeltsin is also enraged by what surely looks to him as Prime Minister [Yevgeny] Primakov's inadequate show of support on the prosecutor's issue. This will not add warm feelings to their relation."

Russian media and political analysts had said the vote would be an important test for Yeltsin, who has suffered a series of damaging setbacks since last year's financial and political collapse. It will only add to speculation that he is a spent force, despite his sweeping constitutional powers.

Wednesday's vote seems to indicate that powerful regional bosses are already thinking about their futures, and do not believe that it can be linked to anything Yeltsin could offer them.

Explanations for the outcome of Wednesday's secret ballot in the Federation Council abound in Moscow. Some see it as the result of the incompetence of the presidential administration, which failed to lobby enough senators to achieve the quorum of 90 legislators needed for Skuratov's removal. Others see it as a result of a weak performance by presidential administration head Andrei Voloshin. He failed to defend with convincing arguments Yeltsin's request to remove Skuratov.

Some see Primakov's hand in the vote. The prime minister cancelled all commitments for the day and was present during all the discussions behind closed doors. At some stage, Primakov addressed senators, asking them to vote in favor of Skuratov's resignation. But eyewitnesses said his words sounded unconvincing, and unconvinced.

According to most media reports, after the vote some governors close to Primakov proposed to table a resolution aimed at defending the government from the threat of a possible Kremlin reshuffle.

Primakov reportedly declined the offer, saying, however, that he could come back to it at mid-May, when the State Duma is set to vote on the president's impeachment.

The lower house of parliament amended its operating procedures Wednesday, to allow open balloting in the impeachment vote, scheduled tentatively for May 12. The move is seen as boosting the chances the measure will pass.

According to some observers, however, the Kremlin lost its chances to win the important vote when it short-sightedly chose to believe that the support of some 20 senators close to the position of another influential presidential hopeful, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, were already assured.

Yeltsin seemed to have improved his difficult relationship with Luzhkov during two recent meetings. However, this clearly proved not to be enough to assure Luzhkov's support on the Skuratov affair.

The description of Wednesday's closed discussion given by Pskov governor Yevgeny Mikhailov helps explain why the mood of the house, still inclined to compromise in the morning, turned angry toward the Kremlin later in the day. That was true even though Skuratov said he did not have compromising material on Yeltsin and his inner circle.

Mikhailov: "He [Skuratov] very simply said: I must ask to be dismissed, because I am hampered in my work. And then Luzhkov asked him directly: What do you mean? [Do you want to say] that our political system is a joke? That -- I am not quoting exactly here -- the system is just covering the absolutist style of one person? Do you mean that the Federation Council decision is not substantial and if one person is president he decides for everyone and the others mean nothing? Skuratov, without answering directly, said that basically this is how things are."

It is not difficult to imagine in which direction an exchange of the kind could influence proud regional leaders in the upper house of parliament. Lebed's words that the Kremlin had not dealt with senators with due respect seems to fit with Mikhailov's statement.

The question that now concerns politicians more than anything else in Moscow is: how will the Kremlin respond to the challenge?

Russian media speculate that the vote may provoke the president to take harsh retaliatory steps. The daily "Kommersant" wrote in a front page article yesterday that "the Federation Council spat in the president's face with its repeated refusal to oust Skuratov. Yeltsin now has a choice - wipe it off and become a Kremlin pensioner, or launch a counter-offensive."

According to the daily, Yeltsin could reshuffle the cabinet and disband the communist-dominated State Duma, even before the start of the impeachment debate.

Political analyst Piontkovsky doubts this is a feasible scenario right now, although he does not rule for later.

"What next? I think that until May 12, when the Duma is set to vote on impeachment, nothing [will happen.] Yeltsin failed this exam [in the Federation Council] and more than anything he will try to pass the next [in the Duma.] If he will succeed, then he will think of some counter-offensive. But I think there may be a counterattack also if he fails on May 12." Sitting and waiting is not in the character of the Russian president. However, Yeltsin's aides must be aware of the fact that, as "Kommersant" put it, "now Yeltsin has absolutely nobody to lean on. He is on bad terms with the government, governors on Wednesday told him to get lost and it is better to forget about his relations with the Duma."

For the moment, however, Yeltsin seems to be stubbornly continuing his efforts to fire Skuratov. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin said yesterday that a presidential order issued earlier this month suspending Skuratov remains in force despite Wednesday's vote.

Unnamed Kremlin sources told Reuters that Yeltsin would take tough action against those who "rock the political boat" and would not just sit and wait for parliament to impeach him.

Federation Council speaker Yegor Stroyev said yesterday that Yeltsin may again ask the house to consider Skuratov's dismissal, and proposed working out a compromise with the Kremlin.

The initiative was aired already yesterday, when Skuratov asked legislators to help settle the conflict with Yeltsin.

One influential politician has already offered to act as mediator in the squabble. It is Moscow Mayor Luzhkov, who spoke after Wednesdays vote:

"The Federation Council is more attached to the law than to the rights of the president and this is very important. I think the most important thing for the president is to show wisdom, accept the Federation Council's decision and give Skuratov the possibility to continue working. I think that in this case the authority of the president will be higher than in case he takes actions worsening a situation that has now been settled with the Federation council vote."

And in what is partly a further warning for the Kremlin, Luzhkov and other influential regional leaders agreed yesterday to join forces in campaigning for parliamentary elections scheduled for December.

Luzhkov set up last year the "Fatherland" political movement. Now he said his party is set to join forces with a new bloc, called "All Russia," that will include several political movements set up by regional leaders and will be officially established next month.

Russian news agencies said that the presidents of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiyev, and Bashkortostan, Murtaza Rakhimov, are among the initiators of the bloc. Samara Governor Konstantin Titov, the leader of another regional bloc, said he may also join.

The announcement is significant, as it signals that the most influential regional leaders are positioning ahead of coming parliamentary and presidential elections, possibly around Luzhkov.