By Elena Dikun
Stepping down on the last day of the century, Russian president Boris Yeltsin made the biggest “tactical move”–to use his favorite phrase–in his career as a statesman. Yeltsin’s New Year bombshell came as a complete surprise for the entire world, changing with a statement the entire political landscape and imposing new rules of play.
THE RETREAT FROM THE KREMLIN
According to the information at our disposal, Yeltsin’s closest advisers–commonly referred to as the “family”–had come up with this plan for the president to step down early some time ago; serious preparations for this had indeed been made. They looked at various possible dates when it would be appropriate for him to resign–September 19, October 19, November 7–but on each occasion, no one found the courage to let Yeltsin himself know what was going on. However, following the Kremlin’s triumphant victory in the parliamentary elections it was decided that zero-hour had arrived.
The president’s advisers were guided by the idea that Yeltsin’s early abdication would clear the path to the throne for his chosen “heir,” Vladimir Putin. The prime minister was at the peak of his popularity; it would be virtually impossible to improve his ratings, especially in view of the fact that the Chechen war, which is all that maintains that rating (he has made no breakthroughs in the economy), is dragging on and on. If the presidential elections were held in June, Putin’s potential rivals would have time to prepare for them properly, and would even have some chance of beating him. Six months is a very long time in Russia.
Yeltsin was informed of what he was to do, code-named “retirement of the president,” by his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, the president’s chief of staff Alexander Voloshin and his adviser Valentin Yumashev. They argued that this would be a great gesture on his part, one which no one was expecting, because everyone is aware of how grimly he hangs on to power. An extra six months in the Kremlin would mean nothing to him now–the center of decisionmaking would shift inexorably to the White House with each passing day–whereas in retiring, he would hand over the reigns of power to a reliable pair of hands. On top of this, numbers also worked their magic: Like a small child, Yeltsin was taken with the idea that this historic event would take place symbolically on the last day of the 20th century. Yeltsin enjoys dramatic gestures.
Yeltsin first told Putin of his decision on December 22. By all accounts Putin did not believe him. The president failed to get a straight answer from Putin as to whether he was prepared to assume power. Putin was being careful: How many times had prime ministers been sacked by a jealous Yeltsin, after practically being named as his successors?
Five days later, on December 27, Yeltsin again summoned Putin, and again raised the subject of transferring power. But again, there was no guarantee that Yeltsin was not testing the loyalty of his latest favorite–for that very day Yeltsin had recorded his New Year address to the Russian people, which made no mention of a resignation. Only on December 29 did preparations begin in earnest for the “surprise.” In the presence of Aleksandr Voloshin, Yeltsin dictated his “message to the people” to Valentin Yumashev, who polished up the text. The operation was planned in the strictest secrecy: Any whisper that Yeltsin was on the precipice of resignation, and the plan would backfire. The small group in the know was only expanded when necessary: The “power ministers” were informed when the briefcase with the nuclear button was handed over, the speechwriters when the new text for the president’s New Year message needed typing up, and the legal staff when the relevant decrees needed drafting (all this was done on the morning of December 31). At midday, after all the formalities of the transfer of power had been completed, Yeltsin left his office in the Kremlin. Witnesses say that as he left, he said quietly to his successor: “Look after Russia.” Operation “retirement” had gone off smoothly, just as planned, and fully in keeping with the spirit of the first president of Russia.
WHAT HAS YELTSIN LOST?
The first decree signed by Acting President Vladimir Putin concerned the security of the former president and the members of his family. Previously Yeltsin had been categorically opposed to such a law. He gave in only when he was persuaded that he had to think not just about himself, but about his household. His daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and his two son-in-laws Aleksei Dyachenko and Valery Okulov are implicated in major corruption scandals. Perhaps Yeltsin was prompted to think seriously about his future by the unsavory story of his “friend Helmut.” A week before Yeltsin’s sensational announcement, it was reported that former German chancellor Helmut Kohl faced going to court in connection with serious financial machinations. The Russian president and his family have insured themselves fully against such problems.
However, only with some reservation can one say that Yeltsin has given up the throne. His New Year trick essentially means that he can remain as a “parallel president.” First, Yeltsin is convinced that his chosen successor Putin will under no circumstances allow himself to ignore Yeltsin’s opinion. Second, by retaining all the trappings of power (an office in the Kremlin, bodyguards, his limousine, his residence at Gorky-9 and the title of “first president of Russia”), Yeltsin genuinely believes that with his strength of character he can reincarnate himself politically as a Russian Deng Xiaoping. In effect, Yeltsin has freed himself only of those aspects of his presidential responsibilities which were a burden–responsibility for the situation in the country and for making decisions. One can only guess how long the peaceful equilibrium will be maintained between the teams of the outgoing president and his successor. Clearly, until the March elections, an alliance with those remaining from Yeltsin’s circle is in Putin’s interests. Until he receives a mandate from the people, his position cannot be considered stable.
Those who can be of no help to Putin in his presidential campaign have already left their Kremlin jobs: deputy chiefs of staff Vladimir Shevchenko (who was responsible for protocol), Valery Semenchenko (head of Yeltsin’s private office), Vladimir Makarov (head of personnel) and Dmitri Yakushkin (press secretary). The president’s image adviser Tatyana Dyachenko also left her job, but her departure was probably a formality. We understand that Dyachenko will be involved with Putin’s election campaign. There is a possibility that his campaign will be managed by Aleksandr Voloshin, who has remained in his post as head of the Kremlin administration. At the moment, Putin is concerned with placing his own people in key posts–people who will be serving not just the president, but President Putin personally, and who will be indebted to him for everything. Two new deputy heads have been appointed to the administration–Igor Sechin and Dmitri Medvedev. They are both old associates of Putin’s from his work in St. Petersburg, and they have both been moved from the White House to the Kremlin. Sechin ran the government secretariat, while Medvedev worked in the cabinet offices.
On January 10 Putin orchestrated his first major reshuffle. There were promotions for Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Minister for Emergencies Sergei Shoigu. While Shoigu was awarded the job of vice premier for coming in second in the parliamentary elections (this probably representing the peak of his career), for Kasyanov the post of first–and only–deputy head of the government is just a stepping stone to higher office. Kasyanov has every chance of becoming prime minister to Putin’s president, though, to be on the safe side, an understudy is being groomed–Communications Minister Leonid Reiman, a close friend and associate of Putin’s, also from his St. Petersburg days. Reiman accompanies Putin on all his trips around the country, and government officials report that Reiman is considerably better informed of state affairs than other ministers. In any case, the major requirement for the future prime minister is that he should have a purely economic role and should not entertain his own political ambitions. The candidacies of Anatoly Chubais and Sergei Kirienko, who were under consideration, were rejected for noncompatibility with these criteria.
Meanwhile, the only losers in the White House were first vice premiers Viktor Khristenko and Nikolai Aksenenko. Khristenko was relegated to the ministerial ranks because he simply wasn’t up to the job. As for Aksenenko, who has been demoted to minister for railways, his is more of a symbolic sacrifice. A high-ranking official from the government apparatus explained that “Nikolai Emelianovich [Aksenenko] has been keeping his head down for some time, and Putin did not really have any serious grievances against him. But the prime minister was advised from all quarters that he had to get rid of Aksenenko in order to prove that he was a real liberal democrat.” For the same reasons the acting president got rid of a key figure of even greater importance, the Kremlin executive secretary Pavel Borodin.
To judge by his first appointments, Putin is maintaining a balance of forces, nimbly maneuvering between the Chubais and Berezovsky camps. The right, aspiring to important posts in the government’s economic block (for example, former Deputy Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin was intended to take Khristenko’s place), have not yet received their promised reward. Meanwhile, Berezovsky’s people–Aksenenko, Minister for the Economy Sergei Shapovalyants and Fuel and Energy Minister Viktor Kaluzhny–have survived, but they are in limbo. It is too early to judge which team will gain the upper hand, because these are only the preparations for the presidential campaign.
The biggest losers from Yeltsin’s move were the potential candidates for his post. With his unexpected departure, Yeltsin has effectively barred their path to the Kremlin; clearly Putin’s opponents have neither the time, the resources nor the money to get their campaigns going. But of course, the greatest disservice of all is done to Russia’s voters, who, just as in Soviet times, are being offered elections without a real choice. One cannot really talk of democracy here.
Elena Dikun is a political columnist for Obshchaya gazeta.