President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to attend the funeral of King Hussein on February 8 caught everyone off guard–including, reportedly, his nearest and dearest. According to some press reports, the Russian head of state, who has been recovering from a bleeding ulcer, insisted on flying to Amman in defiance of his doctors, his family and his inner circle. While Kremlin politics today remains a black box, and little about its dynamics can be said with certainty, what likely propelled the president from his sick bed at the Barvikha sanatorium were Russian wire stories quoting sources “close” to the cabinet of Yevgeny Primakov as saying that the prime minister would probably head Russia’s official delegation to the funeral. The sources implied that Primakov was the natural choice, given his experience in the Middle East and his long acquaintance with the Jordanian monarch. This, on heels of the plan Primakov floated last month for “political stability”–to which he attached a draft law granting ex-presidents free rides on public transport (except taxis)–may have given Yeltsin a sense that the next step would be the removal of his nameplate from his Kremlin office.
In earlier, healthier days, Yeltsin might have reacted to such a encroachments by ordering the Kantemirovskaya and Tamanskaya motorized divisions to fuel up. This time, however, it was only the presidential jet. By going to Amman, Yeltsin wanted to show Primakov–not to mention fellow presidents Bill and Jacques–that the horizons of the Russian head of state were not limited to the Central Clinical Hospital, Barvikha and (occasionally) the Kremlin. His performance in Jordan, however, was diluted by the brevity of his stay, rumors that he received emergency medical treatment during the trip and his reportedly weakened condition by its end. After his return, however, Yeltsin was able to stay more on-message: He showed up at the Kremlin on four consecutive days–unprecedented in recent months. In case anybody failed to get the point, presidential spokesman Dmitri Yakushkin emphasized that the week had shown that his boss remains a “very active player” on the political stage.
The message was not lost on leading political figures. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who early in the week called for constitutional changes which would “limit the autocracy of the spineless, helpless, drunk person sitting in the Kremlin now,” was by week’s end warning that Yeltsin might carry out a “liberal revenge” by ousting the Primakov government and bringing back the hated “young reformers.” Likewise, Primakov, during a meeting Saturday of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, a talking shop for the nationalist wing of Russia’s power elite, made stating before the cameras that he was in constant contact with president–who, of course, should serve out his full constitutional term. Primakov attacked those whom he said were trying to “drive a wedge” between his government and the Kremlin. While he named no names, there is little doubt Primakov was referring to his arch-nemesis, CIS executive secretary Boris Berezovsky. Perhaps even more telling were comments from Sergei Karaganov, the Council’s head and a key Primakov ally. Just a few weeks ago, Karaganov had been calling for Yeltsin’s early retirement and an alliance between the prime minister and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Now he denied he wanted Yeltsin to step down. The council, he said, was merely promoting the “consolidation of Russia’s elite.”
The Primakov camp, then, has apparently concluded that discretion is the better part of valor and beat a tactical retreat. This alone is strong evidence that Yeltsin may really have entered another recovery phase in his seemingly endless health saga. A further hint was the appearance this past week of several articles reviving speculation that Yeltsin might merge Russia with Belarus in order to extend his political career after 2000. Yet another sign: the attacks Berezovsky’s business empire, reportedly initiated by the prime minister earlier this month, suddenly ceased. Yeltsin has the two warring boyars just where he wants them: locked in a standoff. For Tsar Boris, no better ulcer cure is imaginable.