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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Tilting The Chessboard In Moscow

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Once again, Boris Yeltsin has tilted the political chessboard in Moscow, giving himself new room for maneuver by upsetting the calculations of others -- but at the cost of throwing the Russian government into turmoil.

This morning in the Russian capital, Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Sergey Stepashin, along with his entire government, and replaced him with Vladimir Putin, head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and a former longtime KGB agent.

In making this change, the Russian president said that he wanted to put Putin in a position to succeed him as president, thus highlighting Yeltsin's growing unhappiness with the political coalitions now being formed against him and the prospects for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Even more, Yeltsin's latest move -- particularly in the context of the renewed fighting in the North Caucasus -- raises the possibility that he may seek to postpone those elections by declaring a state of emergency or at least to gain more influence over the electoral process.

But any short-term gains he may have realized in the overheated politics of Moscow may be nullified both by the probable reaction of his political opponents and the even more predictable reaction of international financial markets and Western governments.

Precisely because most of Yeltsin's opponents are likely to view his motives as a transparent threat to themselves and because Yeltsin has used similar tactics in the past, political leaders in the Russian Duma and in Russia's regions are likely to redouble their efforts to gain power at his expense.

The electoral coalitions that have emerged in the last few weeks are likely to solidify rather than crack as a result of Stepashin's departure and Putin's appointment. Those involved will certainly conclude that Yeltsin's moves are directed not only at their current influence but their future power in the Russian state.

That may make the confirmation of Putin more difficult, lead to new demands for Yeltsin's impeachment, and possibly trigger other kinds of political moves against an action many of these political figures, not to mention other Russians, are likely to view as the latest indication of Yeltsin's arbitrariness and unfitness for office.

As a result, August is likely to once again prove to be the hottest month politically in the Russian capital.

And this pattern of domestic unhappiness with Yeltsin's move may be compounded by the probable reaction of the West. Both financial markets and international financial institutions are likely to react negatively to this latest indication of instability at the upper reaches of the Russian state.

The reaction of the markets seems certain to be quick and negative, driving down the ruble's exchange rate, reducing still further the willingness of private firms to invest there, and thus further exacerbating Russia's economic difficulties -- thus highlighting the conditions behind the growing opposition to Yeltsin among the Russian people.

The initial reaction of Western governments is likely to be more cautious. On the one hand, many of them are likely to view Yeltsin's latest move as they have viewed his earlier ones of this kind -- a high risk but perhaps necessary step by someone many of them have come to view as the only reliable partner they have in Moscow.

But because Yeltsin has used this stratagem so often and because it is once again threatening to destabilize the political situation in Moscow, ever more voices in Western capitals are likely to begin to ask questions about Yeltsin's reliability and about relations with Moscow after Yeltsin.

That is especially likely because of Yeltsin's suggestion that he would like to see Putin as his successor. Some are certain to be concerned by the prospect of a longtime Soviet spy at the head of the Russian government while others will be worried by the possibility that Yeltsin may suddenly transfer power to him as a means of avoiding a loss in the upcoming elections.

Each time Yeltsin has tossed the Russian chessboard into the air in order to maintain his power, there have been suggestions that he has used this strategy once too often. That is certain to be the case again this week. And whether this is Yeltsin's final August ploy or not, the suggestions themselves will cast an ever larger shadow over Russian politics, the Russian people, and Russia's relations with the West.