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Russia: Primakov's Proposal -- Absurd Or A Bid To Consolidate Power?

Moscow, 28 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Despite a display of consensus between the Kremlin and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, his proposal for a political pact among the Kremlin, government and parliament has generated a great deal of debate in the media and a mixed reception among parliamentarians.

Last Friday, Primakov sent to the leaders of both houses of parliament and to the presidential administration a plan aimed at ensuring political stability in the run-up to coming parliamentary and presidential elections.

It includes giving President Boris Yeltsin incentives for retiring before the end of his term next year. It also calls for parliament, the government and the Kremlin to give up some of their constitutional powers until the election of a new president.

The leader of the pro-reform "Yabloko" faction, Grigory Yavlinsky, called the proposal "absurd". Another deputy, Aleksandr Shokin, slammed it as "legal nonsense, since it would in effect suspend the Constitution." Moscow Mayor and possible presidential contender Yury Luzhkov said the plan "plays down the significance" of the office of president and strips it of some of its powers. Luzhkov's unexpected concern for the presidency is interesting, since the mayor recently increased his criticism of Yeltsin.

Communist leaders, who in the past have raised the possibility of prosecuting Yeltsin after he leaves office, said the documents could not be approved in the form presented by Primakov, but agreed that the proposal was a "sound base" for further consultations. Other deputies hailed the plan and Federation Council speaker Yegor Stroyev went as far as to say that, if the plan is rejected "that could trigger an escalation of tension."

On Wednesday, presidential spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin denied that Primakov's plan had taken the Kremlin by surprise. He also said that Yeltsin had called on Primakov and presidential administration head Nikolai Bordyuzha to lead an effort to fashion a consensus.

The daily "Vremya MN" writes today that Yakushkin's attempt to defuse the issue and take the initiative was ineffective.

"Vremya MN" and another daily, "Kommersant," quoted unnamed Kremlin officials as saying the proposal was sent to parliamentary leaders before being discussed in detail with the president due to a mistake made by Primakov's legal advisors.

According to the officials, the Kremlin is sure it will be able to defuse the incident at a coming Security Council meeting.

However, some analysts argue that the Kremlin spin on the issue only partially explains why Primakov would have felt the need to initiate now what some Russian newspapers termed a "delicate attempt at a coup d'etat."

Primakov, a former spymaster and diplomat, is considered an extremely cautious and meticulous man.

Since appointing him in September, Yeltsin has increasingly given Primakov a free-hand in the day-to-day running of Russia, while retaining control over security ministries. The Prime Minister has been widely credited with stabilizing a stormy political situation after last August's financial meltdown and so far has enjoyed the support of parliament.

Why then would he need to propose to the Duma bills that would contradict the constitution, possibly generate fresh friction between Yeltsin and his foes in parliament, and ultimately shake the prospects of political stability?

Some analysts say that Primakov's proposal could indicate that he has finally agreed to calls to become a presidential candidate and is trying to consolidate his already powerful position.

Political consultant Igor Bunin told the "Washington Post" that Primakov "enjoys a high degree of confidence and the document is meant to keep it that way."

Primakov's letter to State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev included some words that could only irritate Yeltsin, such as a call to "work out agreed rules for the president's behavior" and the assurance that "in case of approval on the proposed approach, I could obtain the agreement of the president."

The unusually conciliatory tone assumed by the Kremlin indicates more than anything that Yeltsin's aides, who admit the president has not actually seen the text, believe the president is not in a position to sack Primakov, without creating new stresses for himself and a political crisis even more disastrous than last year's.

The prospect of lifetime immunity and other privileges would give Yeltsin and his family the guarantees analysts have long said the president would consider a minimum requirement before transferring powers.

Parliamentary endorsement of the Primakov plan would give him new ground in his dialogue with the State Duma. So far, the Prime Minister and legislators have gotten along well. However, amidst widespread expectations of a worsening economic situation, there are signs that the communists and their allies dominating the Duma could withdraw their support.

While deputies are concerned about parliamentary elections scheduled for December, Russian teachers this week are holding three days of strikes and protests across Russia, affecting some 10,000 schools. The teachers union says teachers are owed some 700 million dollars in unpaid back wages.

Seleznev recently said that, if the economy continues to decline, the Duma could well initiate a no-confidence vote in the government in May. A parliamentary promise to avoid a no-confidence vote is one of the provisions of Primakov's proposal.

(Second of two features on Primakov's proposals on Yeltsin)