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Russia: The Return Of The Politburo? An Analysis

Prague, 22 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, Security Council Secretary and special Chechnya envoy Aleksandr Lebed was ejected from the Kremlin's inner sanctum as rapidly as he had been thrust into it.

Lebed's toppling, after less than four months on the job, was accomplished deftly. First, Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov publicly accused Lebed of plotting a coup, calling him a "power hungry maniac."

The next day, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin summoned his intelligence chiefs and key ministers. He stopped short of accusations, but said the charges against Lebed worried him. That afternoon, President Boris Yeltsin was roused from his sickbed and went on television to inform the nation that, having been confronted with the evidence, he had to let Lebed go.

Lebed found himself on the street, facing the glare of the television cameras. But the ex-general, displaying a rare sense of humor, thumbed his nose at his accusers, and went to the theater see a performance of "Ivan the Terrible." He said, with a smirk, that now he wanted "to learn how to rule."

But before his outing, Lebed also told reporters he was well aware of who was behind his dismissal and who really was making the decisions for Yeltsin.

"It is the regent," the ex-general said, "and his name is Anatoly Chubais."

Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia's privatization reforms, also swept into the Kremlin this summer, having managed Yeltsin's successful re-election campaign. But unlike Lebed, Chubais did not storm in noisily. He nimbly glided into his new post as Yeltsin's chief of staff.

And in the past months, observers say, Chubais has been silently accumulating power, following an oft-quoted Russian proverb which advises: "The quieter you go, the farther you'll get."

When Yeltsin's health quickly slipped and the Russian president dropped from view after his re-election, Chubais took over the greater portion of his duties. Having organized the ouster of Yeltsin confidant and security chief Aleksandr Korzhakov, Chubais soon began to control access to the ailing Yeltsin. He got the Russian president to sign an order requiring all draft decrees to be first sent to the chief of staff.

A presidential decree was soon issued, creating a Defense Council, headed by Chernomyrdin, but giving equal membership status to Chubais and Lebed. Another decree followed, creating a revenue collection council, headed by Chubais.

When Lebed returned to Moscow, having drafted a peace plan with the Chechen separatists, he was left cooling his heels. Yeltsin did not receive him, consulting instead with Chubais and Chernomyrdin.

Yesterday, Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov emerged from a meeting with Yeltsin to announce the formation of yet another council. Judging by its title, the "Presidential Council" could be the most important to date. It also the most exclusive. Its four members, already dubbed the "permanent four" by some in the Russian press, include Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov, Federation Council speaker Yegor Stroyev and Yeltsin himself.

But, the Kremlin announced, until Yeltsin's health recovers, Chubais will represent the president at council meetings. According to Seleznyov, the council will "take fundamental decisions related to the interaction of the legislative and executive organs of power." This deliberately fuzzy but potentially powerful formulation leaves the "permanent four" a lot of room to maneuver.

Tatyana Malkina, who covers politics for the Russian newspaper "Sevodnya," told RFE/RL today from Moscow that the new council was "confirmation of the further accumulation of power in the hands of just a couple of people" -- namely Chubais and Chernomyrdin. Stroyev, she said, can be counted on to be loyal, as he has long been a Yeltsin ally. And Seleznyov, added Malkina, "is a Communist but hardly an ideologue."

Laura Belin, a Russia analyst for the Prague-based Open Media Research Institute, told RFE/RL the Presidential Council can be seen as a clever attempt by the Kremlin to circumvent a proposal by Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov for the creation of a powerful State Council. Under Zyuganov's plan, the State Council would include several members of the executive and the Communist and nationalist-dominated Duma, giving the Yeltsin opposition a greater voice in government.

But the Presidential Council includes just one Communist legislator, Gennady Seleznyov. And Belin says some of Seleznyov's colleagues fear he may soon be co-opted into supporting government policies -- just as his one-time predecessor as Duma speaker, Ivan Rybkin. Rybkin, once a vigorous critic of Yeltsin, was just appointed by the president as Lebed's successor. And in his new job, he has promised to be quiet and loyal.

While Yeltsin continues to rest at the Barvikha sanatorium, and Rybkin prepares for a mission to Chechnya, the "permanent four" on the Political Council have already started to govern together. Kremlinologists who used to examine the workings of the Soviet Political Bureau -- the Politburo -- may find themselves on familiar territory.