In Moscow, It's All Boris, All the Time

Nina Khrushcheva is director of communications and special projects at the East-West Institute in New York

On the one hand, Russia is not the most predictable country in the world. On the other, what can be more predictable than Russia, whose leader for a number of years has being doing things that seem impossible, irrational and illogical? And he does them in very consistent fashion.

It has been Boris N. Yeltsin's habit that when there is a situation in which his authority or power is threatened, he does everything to solidify his own power, often at the expense of common sense.

Just-fired Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov enjoyed popularity among the population. He has been able to stabilize the political situation and encourage the International Monetary Fund to give another round of support to Russia. But Yeltsin's own political pride is surely of most importance. It was not the good of Russia but Yeltsin's imminent impeachment process that decided Primakov's future.

In the present case, Yeltsin is charged with five impeachment counts, the most serious of which is his responsibility for the war in Chechnya. Even lesser threats to Yeltsin's power have, in the past, invoked political retribution.

Mere rumors that Viktor S. Chernomyrdin was considering running for president resulted in his dismissal in spring 1998. Summer 1998 brought the sacking of another government, now a reformist one, with 35-year-old Sergei Kiriyenko as the prime minister. Boris Berezovsky, one of the major Russian oligarchs, lost his position as an executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States in March due to his increased influence in Russian politics in general and Yeltsin's private family matters in particular.

What recent history teaches us is that Yeltsin's response to humiliation--and he regards all threats to his power as humiliating--is to attack with only his own survival in mind.

Impeachment hearings in Russia are, in fact, very much a symbolic act. There are no constitutional facilities to remove a living president. It is also a long process, one that will surely take longer than the remaining year Yeltsin has left in the Kremlin.

The Duma must approve the motion by a two-thirds vote, which it is unlikely to do for psychological reasons. The constitutional court, the next step in the impeachment process, is very pro-Yeltsin, and despite its democratic appearance, won't interfere with the country's laws and tradition. Finally, the parliament's upper house, the Federation Council, must pass the motion by a two-thirds majority.

But as impractical as these impeachment threats are, they put the country in real danger. Yeltsin has another quality which defines him as a Russian leader: He doesn't forgive those who have betrayed him even if these betrayals exist only in his own head. All those who appear to be more independent than his unlimited authority allows he considers to be traitors. If Primakov thinks he can rule the country by himself, Yeltsin wants to show who's in charge here.

Primakov's acceptance and respect by both aisles of the Duma, the left and the right, made him a prime minister last September. This very acceptance and respect, especially by the Communists--the Duma's majority--brought him down Wednesday. It doesn't take Sigmund Freud to guess what Yeltsin was thinking. "If Communists support Primakov and are against me, let's see what they're going to do when there is only me and no Primakov.' "

And this is a good question. What are they going to do? Constitutionally, Yeltsin cannot dissolve the rebellious parliament while the impeachment process is in motion. However, if the Duma, by the third vote, doesn't approve of his choice of replacement for Primakov--Sergei V. Stepashin, a recently appointed first deputy prime minister who was a minister of internal affairs and Yeltsin's protege--the president might still dissolve the Duma. And even if dissolution proves to be impossible, obviously this latest move shows that in Russia there is always a way for the man in power to assert his will.

The impulsive Russian president didn't hesitate to send troops against the parliament headquarters--the Russian White House--in 1993. The excuse was obvious. Democratic Yeltsin was fighting for democracy even if it had to be with the help of guns. If this time the simple dissolution of the Duma is not possible, we can only wonder what Yeltsin might do next.

Besides, if Stepashin's his familiarity with the power structure, his campaign against corruption in the capital and the region and his general responsibility for firm order in the country make him a perfect executor for a potential assault on parliament. As grim as it sounds, unfortunately, it's only in the tradition of Yeltsin's predictable unpredictability.

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