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1999 In Review: Yeltsin Enters Final Year in Power

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Entering the year 2000, Russia is due to see the first handing over of the presidency since Boris Yeltsin was elected in 1991. There is little doubt about the political necessity or the legal obligation for Yeltsin to leave power in June. However, some have suggested that those around him might resist his departure unless they can secure their personal safety and assets through an acceptable successor. Increasingly, it looks as though Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will be that person. In this year-end report, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the year now passing in Russian politics and at the year ahead.

Moscow, 27 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The growing conflict between Yevgeny Primakov and the Yeltsin clan enveloped the Russian political establishment in an air of nervousness during much of 1999.

The upcoming presidential elections mean not only Yeltsin's departure, but also threaten the circle of figures surrounding him. It comprises what has become known as the family -- a close circle of family members and oligarchic financial and economic tycoons. They have built their influence on a system of personally granted privileges shortcircuiting more transparent and official levers.

The emergence of a viable non-Kremlin backed candidate in the person of Primakov revealed a potential threat to the Yeltsin circle. And the tensions were laid bare in the clashes that shook the Russian political world during the past year.

When Yevgeny Primakov became Prime Minister after the August, 1998, crisis which shook Yeltsin's authority as never before, he was hailed as a savior for insuring relative economic and political stability. For a short while, Yeltsin resorted to a divided executive power. Primakov, working independently, leaned on the leftist Duma and even pulled off the unforeseen feat of coaxing the deputies into adopting the most austere budget yet.

The threat to Yeltsin and especially to the people around him became more and more clear as Primakov set about establishing an independent power base by consolidating moderate political forces and regional elites. This was a long way from Yeltsin's usual divide and rule tactics.

Carnegie Fund analyst Nikolai Petrov has told RFE/RL that Primakov became a threat to Yeltsin's circle because he stood a chance of building enough support in the regions and among the middle ranking oligarchs to counter the reigning order. The support given by Primakov to Russian prosecutor general Yuri Skuratov, who was investigating corruption allegations against the Russian leadership, came as a warning. Also, Primakov's working relationship with a Duma about to bring to a final vote an impeachment procedure against Yeltsin for the first Chechen war, among other counts, also indicated the possible shaping of a parallel and autonomous executive power structure.

Therefore, says Petrov, once Yeltsin's circle saw an opportunity, they went about the effort of destroying Primakov's political future.

Petrov says: "Their task was not to let power glide out of their hands. If Primakov's [Fatherland-All Russia bloc] had won [parliamentary] elections, it would have [meant] the beginning of an inevitable and inescapable process of giving up power. When Primakov appeared, he became a probable person to bank on for many of the clans inside the elite, including the regional elite. I think Primakov was the hope for a more or less peaceful and relatively easy transfer of power from Yeltsin. By refusing to cooperate with Primakov, Yeltsin and his circle showed that they don't want or are not thinking at the moment about a transfer of power."

According to Petrov, Primakov was a guarantee of a peaceful transition because as an old Soviet apparatchik, he would have offered Yeltsin the protection given to ousted Soviet officials. Like Nikita Khruschchev, Yeltsin would have disappeared from power quietly with the assurance that he wouldn't be prosecuted for any alleged criminal wrong-doing.

According to Carnegie associate Lilya Shevtsova, part of the political class in Russia began to understand this year that Russia's problems are not only linked to Yeltsin's person and his incapacity of coping with the mechanisms of governing. Rather, she says an awareness grew that Yeltsin's inner circle -- including its nepotism and infighting -- presented a real problem.

After his ouster last May, Primakov soon emerged as a seemingly unbeatable opposition candidate, especially after gaining support of powerful regional leaders like Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. It seemed improbable the Kremlin could come up with an electable opponent.

But then Vladimir Putin was pulled away from his state security posting to become prime minister. Since then, in leading Russia into a war in Chechnya, he has benefited from a so far successful effort of playing on the pride of the Russian people and on the image of the country as a rejuvenated power.

Putin's emergence as the Kremlin's anointed heir and Primakov's setback during December parliamentary elections may have defused some of the tensions within Yeltsin's circle over the handing over of power.

French political analyst Jean-Robert Raviot has told RFE/RL that 1999 also reveals how little is likely to change regardless of who succeeds Yeltsin. Raviot says the inquiry of Yeltsin's circle led by Skuratov and the impeachment vote by the Duma both failed due to the institutions' complete lack of autonomy.

Raviot says this system will not change whether the president is Primakov, Putin, or someone else because it serves the ruling elite which is constantly circumventing the state to gain economic favors.

Raviot says: "Everything leads me to believe that Russia's political system is well anchored, whatever changes in its message to the public. The Russian political elite is relatively homogenous and united by the connivance and collusion that are the real power in Russia today. It seems to me that this elite seems to be confusedly searching for a vertical power structure, the kind that was incarnated earlier by the Communist Party existing outside the classic institutions."

The Carnegie Fund's Petrov warns that another worrisome factor is Russian society's apparent readiness to accept an authoritarian leadership in exchange for promises of stability. He says the enthusiasm with which voters supported a prime minister who built his image on war reveals the Russians hunger for what they call "a tough hand". And this, Petrov says, undermines democracy.

Petrov says: "We have an evolution in an extremely negative direction. Negative first of all because the Constitution practically doesn't limit the president in anything, what some political scientists call an elected monarchy. It is [doubly] sad now because society doesn't [want] to limit the power of the president either. Society is now more troubled, more divided and more ready to accept anything than it was in 1991 when Yeltsin was first elected and in 1996 when he was reelected.

Petrov says Putin's popularity has demonstrated the effectiveness of building support through finding an outside enemy.