Chain Saw Boris Revs Up for Change

Gregory Freidin, chairman of the Slavic department at Stanford University, is a co-editor of "Russia at the Barricades" (M.E. Sharpe, 1994)

On Monday morning, Boris Yeltsin, the director and dominant star of Russia's political theater, offered the world a preview of coming attractions, one so riveting that it deserves a review of its own.

First, the style. Sacking the entire Cabinet was vintage Yeltsin--a government crisis on a grand scale, disregard for constitutional niceties (his temporary takeover of the premiership was against the Russian Constitution), the hush-hush involvement of the state security apparatus. Like Indiana Jones, Yeltsin needs a cliffhanger to move the action forward.

This style has defined him for posterity: climbing the tank and staring down the old regime in 1991, ordering the shelling of the Parliament building in 1993, unleashing the ill-fated war in Chechnya in 1994, winning the election in 1996, appointing Gen. Alexander I. Lebed to head the Security Council and then sacking him, the quintuple bypass surgery and eventual recovery.

In recent months, the absences, the "colds," the sudden cancellations of meetings have projected a different picture: an ailing president presiding over--or worse, being propped up by--a stagnant and heartless bureaucracy. In one swoop, he has managed to refurbish his image and convey to average citizens that he feels their pain--their very considerable and growing pain--and can act on their behalf brashly and decisively.

The sacking of the Cabinet itself was not altogether unexpected. For some time, Yeltsin has been indulging in the simple sadistic pleasures of an autocrat undercutting his ministers. He forced them to report publicly on their failures; he played Russian roulette with their heads (announcing in February at the beginning of a televised Cabinet meeting that three of them, unnamed, would not wake up as members of the government); and, to top it all off, on March 2, he abruptly removed federal security protection from the two top reformers in his Cabinet, First Deputy Prime Ministers Boris Y. Nemtsov and Anatoly B. Chubais, the latter being the man Russians love to hate the most. So much for the theater.

The question of political gain is paramount for a consummate politician like Yeltsin. As a leader, he is indifferent to finer points of policy and has only an approximate understanding of the complexity of modern governance. To be sure, he is for a "market economy" and for "democracy," but unpacking these notions is a task better left to the technocrats to ponder, as long as they produce the desired results.

Unlike his "friend Bill," Yeltsin is no master of the bully pulpit, unless it happens to be a tank. His way of governing is almost exclusively by appointing and firing ministers. This time, business as usual was merely amplified 10 times to remind the forgetful that under Russia's presidential system, one who walks and quacks like a lame duck may still be able to roar like a lion.

Finally, perhaps the most cherished political gain for Yeltsin is the opportunity to define his "place in history." He wants to be remembered as founder of a modern democratic Russia, not the man who caused the disintegration of the Soviet empire and brought stagnation to the economy, impoverishment to the people, gross corruption to government and horrible bloodshed to Chechnya.

A crisis of this magnitude, even if forced by the president's hand, is bound to have profound implications for the country. There is a widespread and growing belief in Russia that it is necessary to move away from the oligarchic order created in the first few years of Yeltsin's presidency. Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and Chubais are responsible for the emergence of Russian style "capitalism in the rough." They did it on the fly and deserve a lot of credit for it--and blame, too. Now the feeling seems to be that Russia should be moving into a different phase, must transform the oligarchic order into a "people's capitalism" (the term made current by Nemtsov).

In other words, make sure that small business has a place to grow and become the mainstay of Russia's economy. Even more important, this "new deal" is seen as the only way for the government to remain a government, not just a handmaiden of the oligarchs in banking and oil and gas. After Yeltsin had won the 1996 election with their help, Chubais, the oligarchs' recent ally, tried to change but has managed only to get his nose bloodied.

Like Chubais, Chernomyrdin has been too entangled with the energy monopolies to be effective at forcing them to play by the rules. One can only wonder why it took Yeltsin so long to realize that those who were good at transforming a communist economy into an oligarchic capitalism would not be the best managers of a transition to a capitalism with a more equitable face.

With the presidential elections only a year and a half away, Yeltsin's action was also aimed at presidential candidacies. Chernomyrdin, who has been growing exceedingly presidential during Yeltsin's evermore frequent absences, has been relegated to political limbo, put in charge of the "preparations for the parliamentary and presidential elections."

But the biggest loser of all appears to be Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov. This archetypal Russian strongman and machine politician was one Cabinet official who kept silent on Monday. The reason may have been that the one Cabinet officer who absolutely had to turn in his office keys and step down was Luzhkov's key ally, Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, "the butcher of Chechnya" who as minister of the interior heads the gun-toting tax police. Yeltsin made it clear that no security official in Russia can be an ally of Luzhkov and remain in the government.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World