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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Yeltsin's Political Calculus

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 12 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Boris Yeltsin's decision to fire Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov today appears intended to solve some of the immediate problems facing the Russian president. But regardless of whether this latest move on the Moscow political chessboard works in that way, it seems certain to have some longer term consequences, a few of which Yeltsin himself may not intend.

This morning, Yeltsin's office released a statement that the president had "relieved" Primakov of his responsibilities as premier and appointed Sergei Stepashin, one of Primakov's deputies, as acting head of the Russian government. Because Primakov had said as recently as this week that he had no plans to resign, it seems certain that Yeltsin actually fired him rather than simply agreed to his retirement.

Initial speculation about why Yeltsin took this step now has focused on the Duma's plan to begin impeachment hearings on Yeltsin tomorrow. Yeltsin may have calculated that by dismissing Primakov, he might reduce the willingness of Duma deputies to vote for his own removal from office.

On the one hand, many deputies are likely to be frightened by the prospect of impeaching the president when there is only an acting and not a confirmed premier. And on the other, many of them may see Yeltsin's decision as simultaneously eliminating a major contender in the succession and weakening the presidency as an office relative to the parliament.

But if these are indeed Yeltsin's short-term calculations, they could easily backfire. Many other deputies may see Yeltsin's latest move as further evidence of the Russian president's increasingly erratic behavior and thus decide that the country would be better off with almost anyone else. And they are likely to try to extract enormous concessions from the executive before they are willing to approve anyone, including Stepashin.

Such feelings are likely to be especially strong not only in the Russian political class but also among the Russian people. Many in both groups had been especially cheered by Russia's recent diplomatic gains as a result of the Yugoslav crisis. At the very least, this latest political upheaval in Moscow will mean that Russian leaders will have less time to focus on future diplomatic efforts.

There are clearly many unknowns in this short-term algebra, but Yeltsin's latest action fits a pattern that the Russian president has followed before. And consequently, it may be possible to say more about the longer term implications of what he has done than to identify how the dismissal of Primakov will affect Russian politics tomorrow and next week.

First of all, Yeltsin has frequently sought to govern by crisis. Not only does he seem to be at his best precisely when things appear to be the worst, but he has at various points used crises precipitated by others or by himself to help transform the Russian political system. And he is likely to try to use this crisis in the same way.

The Russian president may use it to break out of the current economic impasse and push for reform, or he may move in an entirely different direction. But if Yeltsin has the strength to operate as he has in the past, his sacking of Primakov almost certainly will mean that he and no one else will define any change of direction.

Second, Yeltsin has often used his own weakness perceived or real against his opponents. Just when people are counting the Russian president out, he has again and again shown that he can change the political chessboard in ways that allow him to corner those who thought they would be able to push him away.

Yeltsin's understanding that weakness properly exploited can be a source of strength for himself and his allies has prevented the institutionalization of the Russian executive branch. And the departure of Kremlin deputy administrator Oleg Sysuyev today along with Primakov reflects the way in which Yeltsin has typically chosen to maintain his own position by keeping others off-balance.

And third, Yeltsin has manipulated the Russian political system for his own purposes by constantly turning to those who have been at or near the center of power before. The selection of Stepashin as acting prime minister is a reflection of this pattern, one that may in some ways even reassure the political elite that Yeltsin has no intention of really changing the top political cadres regardless of the president's radicalism in many areas.

Despite his firing, Primakov may very well resurface somewhere else just as former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has done as special representative for the Yugoslav situation. And consequently, Yeltsin may again be able to count on a certain cohesiveness of his government even as he takes a step that would appear certain to destroy any such ties.

But precisely because Yeltsin has governed in this way so often in the past, he may now be at risk of going this particular route too often. And if other Russian officials and the Russian people more generally decide that his governing by crisis is no longer acceptable, Yeltsin could discover that the sacking of Primakov will precipitate the largest political crisis he has faced since becoming president of the Russian Federation.