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Russia: Analysis From Washington--The Indispensable Man

Washington, 6 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Hints that Russian President Boris Yeltsin may reverse himself and run for yet another term call attention to a problem found in many former communist countries: the absence of a system that allows new contenders for the top job to emerge and the resulting sense that any incumbent is somehow indispensable.

Last Thursday, Yeltsin appeared to back away from his declaration in September that he would not run for another term in 2000. Responding to questions in Nizhny Novgorod on whether he would be a candidate, the Russian president said that his "associates and friends" had "forbidden" him from "speaking on this topic."

Yeltsin's latest remarks reflect at least three calculations on his part:

First, he and his supporters clearly do not want him to suffer any loss of power that a lame duck status might give him. By suggesting that he could run again, Yeltsin thus avoids that problem.

Second, those around Yeltsin obviously have not settled on any successor. Neither the Soviet past nor the Russian present has made it easy for Yeltsin to either promote a political heir or to suffer a challenge from a potential successor he has not anointed.

And third, Yeltsin is clearly testing the waters to see how Russians might react were he to run again. His health restored, Yeltsin appears fit enough for another term, but running again would seem to violate the Russian constitution.

That document's Article 81 specifies that a president can serve only two terms. But Yeltsin's supporters are confident that he can dodge that restriction since the constitution was not adopted until midway through his first term.

Moreover, the absence of established political norms gives Yeltsin and his team good reason to suspect that they could ignore this provision. Indeed, as the Communist speaker of the Duma Gennadiy Seleznyov put it, "a legal loophole can always be found."

But it would be a mistake to look at Yeltsin's hints as reflecting only his personal political situation. In fact, his apparent decision to consider running again is part of a political problem facing most former communist countries.

Not only do the people and politicians in these countries tend to focus on one political figure as being indispensable to whatever goals they are pursuing, but both groups tend to assume that any challenge to the individual leader is somehow illegitimate, an attack not only on a politician but on the state itself.

This inheritance is stronger in some countries than in others, but it is in every case a product of the communist period. No communist leader tolerated for long even an heir that he sponsored, and few tolerated at all any challenge from below.

Instead, the leaders of the communist period developed a cult of themselves as absolutely necessary to the future of their countries, and portrayed any challenge as absolutely impermissible.

Some countries, like Ukraine, have managed to escape from this tradition. But most other former Soviet republics have not. Many of their current presidents were former party leaders, and while they have accepted to a greater or lesser degree the trappings or even the substance of democracy, they have not entirely given up the leadership style of their pasts.

Yeltsin is no exception. And both he and his supporters thus portray him as indispensable, whatever the constitution says, both in order to enhance their power and because that is the only political style that they are deeply familiar with.

But that approach entails three major risks:

It means that the transition from one leader to another is likely to be anything but smooth.

It means that it will be extremely difficult for a new generation of leaders to approach the highest offices.

And it means that the future of these countries may be far less stable and constitutional than even their current leaders promise.

Yeltsin's announcement a month ago that he would not run again gave promise that Russia was moving beyond this ratchet-like pattern of political development. His statement in Nizhny Novgorod this past week suggests that he and his country, like many in that region, remains in this sense at least a prisoner of that unfortunate past.