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Russia: Yeltsin Searches For Political Heir

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 8 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts says President Boris Yeltsin is now busy trying to find a political heir, or at least to consolidate his role as kingmaker with the approach of parliamentary elections this year and presidential elections in 2000.

They say, however, the effort comes at a time when competition among vested interests over the country's dwindling resources is intensifying.

Last month's sacking of prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and the ensuing scramble to find a replacement may only have been the start of what promises to be a vicious struggle for power.

Yeltsin has been known for years to be looking for a political heir. The names of former top government officials such as Viktor Chernomyrdin and Boris Nemtsov have been prominent on the list. But Yeltsin is infamous for removing his proteges abruptly.

Chernomyrdin incurred the president's jealousy for being seen as taking too much power too soon.

Nemtsov's downfall came in the aftermath of last year's financial collapse, when Yeltsin reshuffled the pro-market government of Sergei Kiriyenko.

Kiriyenko's replacement, Primakov, with his lingering ties to the communists, never fully won Yeltsin's trust. His downfall was widely predicted as soon as it became clear he'd moved on from his original role as caretaker prime minister and came to be seen increasingly as a presidential frontrunner with a strong grip over state affairs.

A new name has been added to the list of proteges: first deputy prime minister Nikolai Aksenenko. He was reportedly Yeltsin's first choice for prime minister after Primakov was sacked. But since Yeltsin settled on the loyal Sergei Stepashin as prime minister, Aksenenko's position appears uncertain.

In the absence of an obvious heir, analysts say the main issue for Yeltsin may be to gain enough control over state resources to be the kingmaker of future elections.

Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says the struggle isn't so much over names but over resources.

"I would say there are two important aspects in the process. First, it's true the Kremlin continues to look for a suitable heir. This is somebody who is able to guarantee the interests of the president and his team after they leave big politics. But there is another equally important aspect. It concerns the problem of concentration of resources of political and financial elites ahead of the elections. It's evident the elite wants to preserve its supremacy. As [was the case] before the 1996 presidential election, [the elite] is now trying to consolidate all financial and other resources. The problem, and the difference with 1996, is that a kind of pool of different oligarchic clans was then acting as operator over resources. Today, the resources are significantly diminished and are not enough to satisfy the clans. A fresh, brutal start for the role of controller of the resources has started."

If Yeltsin is in fact trying to gain control over the country's resources, he faces a very difficult task and one that is unlike what he faced in the 1996 elections.

In 1996, says the editor-in-chief of "Nezavisimaya Gazeta," Vitaly Tretyakov, "the oligarchs ... unanimously decided Yeltsin was the one who would secure the political status quo."

This view is supported by Vladimir Gusinsky, the principal shareholder of media conglomerate Media Most.

Gusinsky told RFE/RL that in 1996 the business, political and media elites were concerned with only one thing: the possibility of a return to power by communists.

"I think the only time in [recent] history when all the elites -- I mean, the active ones -- were de facto united was in 1996. Then no one supported Yeltsin, but everyone was afraid of [communist leader Gennady] Zyuganov. This was the only time the elites acted together."

Following the 1996 election, competing interests divided the clans, involving them in a brutal propaganda campaign for power and influence. Analysts called the campaigns "information wars," with each of the various oligarchs using media outlets under their control.

Gusinsky says the battles weren't true "information wars," but rather involved the more positive process of the media relaxing its self-censorship and speaking clearly.

However one terms the oligarchic battles of the past, it's clear that another round of positioning is underway. This time, Yeltsin is not as likely to be the beneficiary.

(Part Two focusing on the search for an heir to President Boris Yeltsin will be followed by a third feature looking at recent developments in Russian politics and upcoming elections this year and next.)