Moscow, 31 March 1998 (RFE/RL) - Russia's President Boris Yeltsin was meeting visiting United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan at the Kremlin yesterday. But, in remarks to reports before the talks, Yeltsin appeared to focus more on the intense issue of his succession in 2000 than on international concerns.
Russian television footage showed Yeltsin repeating that he would not seek a third term in office in the next presidential election. But, Yeltsin flatly refused to confirm Viktor Chernomyrdin, whom he dramatically ousted from the post of prime minister a week ago, as his chosen successor.
"We don't have a tradition of successors here," said Yeltsin. And, he added, "You speak about succession when it concerns royalties. Here people make the choice. The people will choose the successor."
Some commentators noted that Yeltsin had said last month that he had chosen the politician he would like to succeed him as president, but had refused to disclose the name of his favorite then.
Yeltsin's remarks yesterday marked his first official reaction since Chernomyrdin announced he plans to run. Chernomyrdin made his announcement Saturday, during a television interview. "I have taken the decision to run and I will not back down," Chernomyrdin told ORT television. ORT is a partially state-owned channel seen as controlled by Boris Berezovsky, a business tycoon with influential Kremlin connections. Berezovsky is believed to have played a role in last week's government reshuffle.
Chernomyrdin said he had "understood" he had Yeltsin's support in his run for the presidency, but admitted that the president had not clearly designed him as successor. While he was in the government, Chernomyrdin repeatedly refused to confirm that he had presidential ambitions.
But observers have said Yeltsin dropped Chernomyrdin in a move to reassert himself as the ultimate arbiter of political power in Russia, as it became increasingly clear Chernomyrdin was growing too influential and independent for Yeltsin's liking. Chernomyrdin admitted that he had been upset by Yeltsin's abrupt decision to fire him, after more than five years of loyal service in the president's shadow and on the eve of his 60th birthday. Chernomyrdin said, "if I said that it had not upset me, no one would believe me."
Yeltsin yesterday said that, although he would not confirm a successor, Chernomyrdin's plans "do not fall outside the general practice of our policy or the president's thoughts."
Yeltsin, 67, has made contradictory statements about his own plans for the next presidential elections. He had repeatedly stated recently that he does not plan to run, although most Russian politicians and observers have said they find it hard to believe Yeltsin would at some stage consider surrendering his grip on power.
But, yesterday's announcement that he would not stand was made in the presence of the U.N. secretary general and its public nature seems to give it a more resolute tone than in the past. Yeltsin's questionable health, as well as his age and the Russian Constitution all appear to be playing a role in the decision. However, Yeltsin said there was "something not quite right" with Chernomyrdin's declaration that he himself would stand.
In typical fashion, Yeltsin told journalists that he "took the decision, on sacking the cabinet, meaning at the same time that Chernomyrdin would head up the presidential campaign for the 2000 election."
Yeltsin added, "we need a strong leader there, and given that I am dropping out, we must strengthen the team."
Nikolai Petrov, a top analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, told RFE/RL that Yeltsin's statement was meant to make clear that, in the president's view, Chernomyrdin "has been removed as he was a threat to Yeltsin, who may still change the tone of his statements and run himself." According to Petrov, Chernomyrdin's best chance will now be to act as the chief presidential campaigner on Yeltsin's behalf, as presidential aides Oleg Soskovets and Sergei Filatov have done in the past.
However, other observers interpret Yeltsin's moves since last week as a sign that the president has given Chernomyrdin the chance to prove that he could be the designated candidate of the so-called 'party of power,' provided Chernomyrdin makes clear that he can gather consensus around his candidacy. Support from voters, but particularly from political circles and powerful business and financial lobbies, is seen as essential to launch a successful presidential campaign.
One observer (anonymous) tells RFE/RL that his reading of the last events was that "Yeltsin essentially told Chernomyrdin: if you really want to be the main presidential candidate, this is fine to me, but, you will have to prove to me what you can do with your own forces." The analyst added that "Chernomyrdin's relatively fast reaction after his ousting proves that Viktor Stepanovich is determined to do so."
Immediately after Chernomyrdin was fired, many Russian politicians and analysts were quick to rule him out, saying he lacks charisma. They added that powerful officials, who had joined Chernomyrdin's political movement "Our Home is Russia," would be quick to leave the 'sinking boat' now that the 'captain' had been deprived of his levers for direct control over the complex machinery of the Russian state.
Probably aware of the widespread skepticism concerning his future, two days after his ousting Chernomyrdin gave the first signs that he would soon launch his presidential candidacy -- with or without Yeltsin's blessing -- and, that he was determined to pull together the forces that may support him. At a meeting of "Our Home Is Russia," attended by leading politicians and by business leaders, including the head of Russia's natural gas giant, Gazprom, Chernomyrdin said that "some of us have spent too much time sitting around offices...we need to get out and grab votes." He tried to assure his audience that he "would not play second fiddle to anyone" in the future, and added that "for many years, you have known me as Russia's number two, after the president. Believe me, that was not an easy part to play. But now, nobody can hold me back. From now on, my style will be uninhibited and it will be that way as long as I stay healthy."
Chernomyrdin's words appeared to be a direct response to warnings made after his ousting by businessman Berezovsky. Berezovsky had said that, "if Chernomyrdin demonstrates will and strength, he will have a lot of supporters...he has an opportunity to fully use his potential popularity in this country and abroad...but, then, he has to bear in mind that power is not given, it is taken."
Following the television interview in which Chernomyrdin launched his campaign, Berezovsky seemed to give his endorsement, saying that "Chernomyrdin has changed from being a premier to being a genuinely powerful political leader.
Chernomyrdin will need as much qualified support as possible from business circles, willing to bankroll his campaign and improve his image through media assets they control. The latest nationwide poll taken by the Public Opinion Foundation last week showed Chernomyrdin with six percent support in a hypothetical presidential election. Other opinion polls show even smaller figures. However, the majority of Russian polls are generally considered unreliable and unrepresentative of the Russian population.
At the beginning of his presidential campaign in 1996, Yeltsin's popularity was also in single digits, and observers agree that the media and financial support Yeltsin obtained from an alliance of business figures was essential to his re-election.
The situation is different now. Since the 1996 elections, Russia's business tycoons have split dramatically, and have waged vitriolic wars against each other through the media outlets they control, in order to defend their business and political interests.
Some analysts say Chernomyrdin's "natural" base of support, which includes Gazprom -- the gas giant that he helped to create and led until his appointment to the cabinet in December, 1992 -- and other Soviet-era industrial complexes, would guarantee him the financial funding and media coverage necessary to campaign effectively.
However, the analysts say the Gazprom leadership is likely to consider carefully several factors, from political developments concerning the formation of a new cabinet, to Chernomyrdin's standing in opinion polls, before making a final decision. That might set in motion the company's growing media arm -- "Gazprom Media Holding" -- in full support of the candidate. Gazprom spokesman Sergei Smirnov yesterday told Reuters news agency that the company will not offer any official view at least until Thursday (April 2), when Gazprom's chairman Rem Vyakhirev is due to hold a news conference, and might comment on Chernomyrdin's decision.
Meanwhile, Gazprom's recently appointment financial adviser, Andrei Vavilov, told reporters yesterday that Chernomyrdin would likely have the support of the company's leadership. "I don't decide for Gazprom, but, it seems to me that the leadership supports Chernomyrdin," said Vavilov. And he added that Chernomyrdin may return to hold an unspecified post at the top of the company.
Vavilov, a former deputy finance minister, who resigned from the cabinet last year, is seen as a controversial figure who, during his tenure in government, was close to Chernomyrdin.
Stephen O'Sullivan, an analyst at MC Securities in London, told Reuters that he doubted Gazprom would say anything significant in public, until the company had carefully analyzed the situation, to assess which way the political wind is blowing. O'Sullivan said that "at the moment, it is clearly Chernomyrdin, because he's reasonably well placed and knows the company intimately. But, in six months time, there may be someone much better placed."
The next presidential election is scheduled for June 2000. And, provided Yeltsin's health does not falter dramatically, looking like a contender for 27 months, could prove to be one of Chernomyrdin's main obstacles.
Yeltsin yesterday elusively said, "Some start sooner, some later."