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Russia: A President Surrounded By Regents

Moscow, 7 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Alan Bennett's play and film, "The Madness of King George," recount the true tale of an attempt by a faction in the 18th century House of Commons to declare England's King George III incapable of his royal duties and to replace him with a regency headed by his son.

George was quite mad. But his disorder went into remission and his handlers were able to bring him to parliament, where he staged a notable comeback. He went mad again, later on, and his son, George, eventually succeeded to the throne the normal way. But that isn't part of the stage story.

There are some parallels in Russian Pesident Boris Yeltsin's appearnce before parliament yesterday. All that was really required for the occasion was proof, not that he is capable of ruling the country, but that he has recovered control of himself.

All the rest -- blame for corrupt officials, promises to fulfill the 1997 budget, to halt the circulation of state money to commercial banks, etc. -- should have mattered. This was, after all, the first real statement of the president's policy since his election. This was the speech he has been reflecting on ever since he fell ill.

If this was the best Yeltsin could do, it was paltry evidence that he is capable of deciding any of the underlying conflicts and controversies that have been paralyzing the government for months.

There are two ways to interpret what is happening to this government, and especially to Anatoly Chubais, following Yeltsin's reappearance. One is to judge that Chubais, Yeltsin's regent during illness, has been placed in a spot where Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin will curb, if not cure his ambition. The other is to judge that the regent, having succeeded in capturing the Kremlin, is now extending his power over the the White House by forcing a regency on Chernomyrdin.

The important thing is not to magnify the difference between these two outcomes. Can one man, ruler or regent, make any difference now to the problems Yeltsin's speech acknowledges in a perfunctory way?

Chubais and Chernomyrdin have headed the special tax collection commission for months; its effectiveness in collecting taxes has been very modest. In an economy shrinking like this one, starving to death for lack of capital, that's inevitable.

Can Chubais's own regent, Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Potanin, be judged more of a success in managing capital at his government post, than in his Uneximbank seat? There has been time enough to judge Potanin's performance in both; and thereby to know whether there is a difference between the two that has contributed, or subtracted, from the public good.

In Yeltsin's remarks on the war in Chechnya -- the first he has made since the fighting stopped -- and on military reform, he did no more than read what two of his regents, Defense Minister Igor Rodionov and Defence Council Secretary Yury Baturin, had drafted. That he could read is one thing. That he is unable to settle their bitter policy conflict over the future of the army is another thing.

Restoration of law and order is not a new priority on the president's agenda. And so we may ask whether Chernomyrdin's regent, Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, can root corruption out of the economy any better with his new ministerial title, than he could before. Any better than rival regent, Alexander Lebed?

Among the many boxes of cash carried into and out of government buildings in the past year, whose circulation Yeltsin thought to mention, what makes aluminium money different from oil and gas money, or bank money, or arms money, or media money? In a government of regents, it is understood that different boxes are meant for different men intent on supplanting another thing the president omitted to speak about -- his will, his life.

He might have considered sharing with his fellow citizens what he had learned from mortal adversity, to win back some of the trust he knows he has lost. Instead, he offered an outline of how little he trusts his own government and how unwilling he is to disturb the regencies he still preserves, the better to sleep himself at nights.