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Russia: Analysis From Washington--New Political Struggle in the Kremlin

Washington, 10 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Boris Yeltsin's announcement last week that he will undergo "difficult" heart surgery later this month has exacerbated the political struggle already going on among his three chief lieutenants.

Each of them -- Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, National Security Chief Aleksandr Lebed, and Presidential Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais -- has already carefully positioned himself for this new competition.

In recent days, each has made statements about his intentions both for the period during which Yeltsin will be incapacitated during his recovery and for the possibility that the Russian president will for one reason or another leave the political scene.

So far, this struggle has taken the public form of a discussion concerning how to handle the transfer of presidential authority during Yeltsin's incapacity. But it is about far more than that, because on its outcome depends not only who will be in charge in Moscow but also the direction that he will take Russia in the future.

Chernomyrdin's position is simultaneously the clearest and the most opaque. It is clearest on the immediate issue in that he need do nothing to advance himself now. Under the constitution, he as prime minister would become acting president in the event of Yeltsin's disability or death.

But Chernomyrdin's stance is also undefined in that he relies almost exclusively on the current Russian elite rather than on the Russian people for his power. Just what that elite -- and especially its energy sector, from which the prime minister himself springs -- would want in a post-Yeltsin environment is very much an open question.

Lebed, on the other hand, has been much more active. Drawing on his popularity among the people but not the elite, Lebed has suggested in the media that Chernomyrdin should be designated "acting" president for a specific and perhaps lengthy period while Yeltsin convalesces. And, at the same time, Lebed has said he would be happy to stand for an early election if Yeltsin cannot return to office.

By pushing Chernomyrdin forward, Lebed obviously hopes to force the prime minister to take responsibility for whatever happens and thus give himself room to further exploit popular discontent. And by indicating his own readiness to run for the highest office, he is clearly looking beyond Yeltsin's term in office.

If Lebed is right on that, he could be on track to succeed Yeltsin. But if he is wrong, he could be setting himself up for a fall, for dismissal from the Kremlin by a newly-recovered Boris Yeltsin.

But by clearly linking his future to the population rather than the elite, Lebed opens the door to potentially radical changes in Russian policy, changes that would certainly undercut the power of the energy sector and its elite but might seek to benefit a broader cross-section of the Russian people.

Consequently, Lebed's recent actions may garner him additional support from the population even as they generate new opposition to his candidacy among the elite.

Meanwhile, the third member of this latest Russian troika has also launched a political campaign of sorts. Lacking the public support that Lebed enjoys and the bureaucratic backing that Chernomyrdin can command, Chubais suggested over the weekend that Yeltsin should hand over power to the prime minister only for a very brief period.

In that event, Chubais, whose power depends on Yeltsin, would gain the most from such an arrangement: a Yeltsin not fully able to function but who retains all the authority to act. And because Chubais is most closely associated with economic reforms, those might accelerate in such a situation.

But Chubais' calculation may ultimately prove the most risky of all: In the event that Yeltsin is incapacitated for any period of time, Chubais may have the most formal power. But whatever he or they may say now, neither of the two other stronger competitors is likely to be willing to accept that arrangement.

And as a result, what might benefit Chubais and economic reform might ultimately lead to more, not less political instability at the top of the Russian state.