By Elena Dikun
At an extraordinary session of the Federation Council on September 17, senators proposed that the president resign. Sixty-one people voted for the motion, 104 voted against. However, those who instigated the vote are not planning to give up, and intend to raise the issue again at the next session. Meanwhile, the day before this, the speaker of the upper house, Yegor Stroev, had caused a stir among Russia’s political elite by declaring in the New York Times that it would be good for the people, good for the political parties and good for Boris Yeltsin himself if he were to resign. And though Stroev hastily qualified his words by saying that it was entirely up to the president himself whether to resign, everyone is convinced that the highly cautious Stroev, who always trims his sails to the wind, would not make such seditious statements lightly. Something is clearly brewing.
THE PLAN TO RETREAT FROM THE KREMLIN
Since the end of August the Russian papers have been vying with one another to bolster rumors that Yeltsin would voluntarily resign in the next few days. They even named the preferred dates when he would address the nation with news of his historic decision–September 16, September 19, November 7 and so on. Despite the fact that the first two dates have passed without any political upheaval, the issue remains.
No one really believes, though, that Yeltsin is in fact ready to resign. We only know that his closest advisers–dubbed the Family–have devised and approved such an option. It is just that no one foolhardy enough has yet been found to advise Yeltsin of the plan–they all know that the messenger’s neck will be put straight on the block.
It would appear that the members of the Family feel that the prolongation of Yeltsin’s rule is no guarantee that power will be transferred to a safe, reliable pair of hands. The only key to success for the official heir may be provided by early elections. It is doubtful, however, that Yeltsin will go in the near future: It is not in the Family’s interests to combine the presidential elections with those for parliament. First, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has not yet gained the authority appropriate to the “heir.” Second, his rivals are very well prepared for the December elections, and it is worth waiting for them to expend their energy, spend all their money and bore the electorate.
Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has indicated the longest that Yeltsin can wait to transfer his powers to the prime minister. First in an interview with Itogi magazine and then a week later at a selection meeting with regional branches of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc, Primakov clearly stated that the new Duma would probably want to replace the government, and that the new government would be formed on the basis of the Duma majority. In other words, by January or early February there may be a Primakov or Luzhkov cabinet, and Putin the heir will be left by the political wayside.
The Kremlin is aware of this possible turn of events, and has prepared some countermeasures just in case. According to the information in our possession, if the newly elected Duma passes a vote of no confidence in the government and then rejects Putin’s reappointment three times, the president will appoint Putin acting prime minister, and the deputies can protest their rights as much as they like. Naturally, such a situation will not be an easy one for Putin to deal with. He will be accused on all sides of assuming power illegally, and will meet with political obstruction everywhere. He will face opposition not only from the Duma, but also from the Federation Council, which will never agree to Putin’s “acting premiership.” There is only one way to guarantee that Putin will not be removed, and that is to make him acting president. The best time to do this would be immediately after December 19, without waiting for the new Duma to convene. The Family should be able to persuade Yeltsin by then that in order to save those close to him he will have to forego six months of his presidency.
THE PLAN TO TAKE THE KREMLIN
Informed sources in the Kremlin admit that there is no potential successor other than Putin, because, basically, there is no one left to choose from. First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko, whose hopes Yeltsin was bolstering not so long ago, is “no longer one of us,” according to our sources, while Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed is only being used as a “bogey-man”–if you do anything to damage the president, he will bring out the general and everyone will suffer. The Kremlin is not entertaining any hope of a new figure springing out of nowhere like a jack-in-the-box.
Without waiting to see what actually happens, an experienced group of image-makers, headed by Minister for the Press Mikhail Lesin, has begun a publicity campaign promoting Putin. They have decided to reject the ploys which worked in 1996. Putin will not be doing any rock-and-roll or folk dancing–they don’t want people laughing at him. This time the plan is to appeal to people’s minds rather than their hearts. Putin’s publicity campaign is to be based on a program generally known behind the scenes as the “twelve labors of the heir.” This is a list of major, socially significant projects which its instigators believe are well within the capabilities of a candidate who has control of the government. The timetable for the Kremlin candidate’s election campaign has him performing these exploits if not daily, then no less than twice a month.
Putin’s supporters believe that he has already begun recording these heroic deeds. Putin has already won points for his actions in Dagestan, for receiving the blessing of the senators to use harsh measures to establish order in the North Caucasus, and for his proposals to reduce taxes. As the elections draw near, the prime minister is due to raise pensions and benefits, and to give public sector workers a pay rise, but the most effective move will concern military reform. It is expected that Putin will propose abolishing compulsory military service and making the transition to a professional army. The State Duma is likely to bury this proposal, but the prime minister will win the hearts of all conscripts and millions of mothers and army wives. It is doubtful that any of the other candidates has anything as appealing as this to entice the electorate.
Putin’s subordinates observe that he is quite at home in his role, and in meetings often “gives the game away,” saying things like “as the president’s successor I must…” without a hint of irony. The Kremlin sees this as a good sign: The man believes in his abilities. The rather colorless impression that Putin gives is deceptive. This is more the professional image of a secret service man, concealing a strong-willed, tough and cold-blooded man. Prism sources describe Putin as an “intelligent operator.” If you talk to him in a commanding manner, you won’t get much out of him. But if you convince him of the wisdom of this or that measure, he will act without looking back. Behind his back people call Putin “Andropov Junior.” He is extremely cautious and never permits himself to say more than is absolutely necessary. Among friends Putin likes a joke, but in public he prefers to use authoritarian vocabulary, dominated by the words discipline, order and responsibility.
The second task facing the “heir’s” publicity team is to reduce the chances of Putin’s main rivals–Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzhkov. To this end a PR campaign is being developed along the lines of “Aren’t you fed up with them yet?” (There is no discussion of how to deal with Gennady Zyuganov, as he is no longer seen as a serious contender for the presidency.) This counter-propaganda emphasizes the age and political history of the leaders of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc. In particular, discussions are being held with television bosses about how to film Primakov: Cameramen should capture how Primakov walks, how he sits down, how he gets up again. To ensure that television viewers make the right associations, images from recent footage of Yeltsin can be edited into that of Primakov.
This is for the ordinary electorate. As for the governors, who will in many ways decide the outcome of the elections, they will be reminded at every opportunity that Prime Minister Primakov once called for the abolition of elections for the heads of regional administrations, and for their appointment by presidential decree. So there are some things for the Kremlin’s opponents to worry about; they must quickly come up with something in retaliation.
Elena Dikun is a political columnist for Obshchaya gazeta.