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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Yeltsin's Appeal Highlights Divisions

Washington, 28 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin's appeal on Friday for an end to political infighting in Moscow highlights just how serious these struggles over power and policy now are and just how weak the state institutions within which they are taking place have become.

In a five-minute recorded radio address, Yeltsin said that "there have been enough struggles for influence, fights for jobs, criticism, and electioneering." And these struggles, he continued, have "discredited" the government and are now "undermining the confidence of citizens in the state."

Now, the Russian president concluded, by electing him, "Russia has made its choice for the next four years." Consequently, he said, "it is time to work."

But Yeltsin's words, undoubtedly intended to reassure those concerned about his own health and the stability of his regime following the dismissal of Aleksandr Lebed, ring false against developments last week within his own staff, in the Russian Duma, and in the Russian government as a whole.

The disarray in Yeltsin's own entourage was very much on public view even as Yeltsin was calling for unity. On the same day, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced the formation of yet another Yeltsin-created institution designed to coordinate government policy.

Chernomyrdin said that a presidential "consultative council" composed of himself, Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroyev, Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, and Yeltsin's chief of staff Anatoly Chubais would meet within a week.

The Russian prime minister did not make clear just what this new group would do. But this latest in a series of kaleidoscopic changes at the top of the Russian government only serves to underscore the weakness of the institutions around the president and the inability of anyone now in office to overcome it.

Political disarray was also very much in evidence in the Russian Duma. During the past ten days, the deputies postured about the Crimea, Chechnya, and arms control, adopting resolutions likely to inflame opinion in Russia and abroad but ones which do little else because they have no legal force.

This situation reflects the weakness of the Duma relative to the Russian president and the unwillingness of deputies to push too hard against Yeltsin lest he call for new parliamentary elections, something that could threaten their positions.

But this lack of seriousness in the behavior of the legislature and the tendency of its members to play to the increasingly angry population also has the effect of further undermining public confidence in existing state institutions.

And that decline in public confidence and support for these institutions means that conflicts over policy will inevitably become struggles over power. It further means that these struggles may overwhelm institutions so obviously lacking in popular legitimacy.

Moreover, the disarray in the government as a whole was also all too obvious. On the one hand, the International Monetary Fund indicated last Thursday that it may delay its latest tranche of aid because its experts have concluded that Moscow has failed to make sufficient progress in collecting taxes. And observers suggested that the resulting shortfalls could threaten the economic reforms that Russia has made to date.

And on the other, Russian defense minister Igor Rodionov said on Friday that the failure of the government to pay the army had created a situation in which "the armed forces are on the edge, beyond which extremely undesirable and even uncontrollable events might take place."

Rodionov's words were part of an appeal to the Duma to provide additional funds to the military, and as such should be judged in that context. Not surprisingly, the Duma rejected his appeal.

But Rodionov's statement also coincided with a deadline set two weeks ago by a number of leading generals. They demanded in an open letter published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that they would use force unless the government paid them and their soldiers what it owes them.

Like so many other Russian institutions that have threatened to take action if the government does not pay, the Russian army probably is not in a position to force the Yeltsin regime to do what it wants. But that optimistic conclusion has a dark side as well: just like every other Russian state institution, the army too is now shown to be too weak to act.

Yeltsin's appeal for unity in such circumstances is thus unlikely to achieve its ends or even to reassure those concerned about the future of his presidency and of Russia itself.