Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 21

By Elena Dikun

The visit of the Russian president to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in mid-October plainly demonstrated that Boris Yeltsin is no longer able to function normally. He found it difficult to stand up without help. On the rare occasions that he appeared in public, he almost fell over three times. At the official welcome ceremony in Tashkent, only the lightning reactions of Uzbek President Islam Karimov saved Yeltsin from trouble. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev literally guided his Russian colleague by the arm. After the joint agreements were signed he did all but carry Yeltsin out over his shoulder.

From Boris Yeltsin’s lips poured a meaningless “stream of consciousness,” causing deep embarrassment to his hosts. He cannot sign his own name: For some time now, documents he has signed have been taken away by aides to be filed in the archives, with copies stamped with a facsimile reproduction of his signature. In Almaty Yeltsin took almost ten minutes to sign seven documents, moving the pen across the paper with great difficulty. During this trip, the officers with the “nuclear briefcase” were not in their usual place beside the president. Does this mean it has become too risky to entrust him with the nuclear button?

It has become clear to everyone–even to the president’s closest entourage–that something has to be done about the situation. But what? Downcast by the shocking fiasco of Yeltsin’s visit to Central Asia, high-ranking officials in the administration have drawn up a strategy provisionally entitled “special work load for the head of state.” Valentin Yumashev, the president’s administrative chief of staff, convened a meeting in the Kremlin of newspaper editors and heads of television stations to inform them of the proposed plan of action. He began by saying, “From now on, it can no longer be said that the president is healthy and functioning normally.” First, the number of foreign trips the head of state undertakes is to be cut to a minimum. Apart from the ritual summit meetings of the G-8 leaders, Yeltsin can comfortably be replaced by Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Second, Yeltsin should hand over the running of the country to Primakov and not interfere in the activities of the government. Third, it is envisaged that the “power ministries” and the foreign ministry will also be released from presidential control. Finally, according to Yumashev, the president himself should announce this plan. “I shall soon have to have a difficult conversation with the president on this score,” the chief of staff admitted.

According to the plan of the Kremlin scriptwriters, Yeltsin should remain in the post of president for the natural duration of the term for which he was elected–that is, until the year 2000. Ideally he would work and rest at the same location–the country residence of Gorki-9. Here Yeltsin would be free of the routine bureaucratic tasks. He would be able to concentrate on a thorough revision of the constitution of the Russian Federation. The country would be governed to all intents and purposes by the prime minister. From now on, Yevgeny Primakov is considered by the Kremlin to be the “party of power” candidate for the presidential elections in the year 2000.

For the head of state to exist as a sort of dowager queen is not without historical precedent. The only question is how to achieve it. The sudden visits to the Kremlin which the sick president made after Almaty clearly demonstrate that Boris Yeltsin is not predisposed to accept the good advice of his doctors and advisors. Nor is he inclined to act out any script written for him. According to one high-ranking official from Yeltsin’s administration, “When he [Yeltsin] had seen the critical articles about his Central Asia visit, [he] flew into a rage, told Naina Iosifovna, Tanya and the doctors where to go, and demanded to be driven to work. Yeltsin never uses bad language, but what he said that day was enough for anyone.” It seems that Yeltsin’s legendary unpredictability has gone beyond medically acceptable limits. It may have become a serious threat to political stability in Russia. An incapacitated and uncontrollable president vested with limitless powers is a recipe for a disaster far worse than Chornobyl.

There is one more significant problem. Yevgeny Primakov, whom the Kremlin is grooming as Boris Yeltsin’s stand-in, does not seem to understand the meaning of the unambiguous signals coming his way–to take control. The prime minister testily distances himself from this: “That’s rubbish. Somebody is profiteering from this.” Talking to well-informed people in the government apparatus, one gets the impression that the plan to mobilize the prime minister is seen here as the business plan of the president’s administrative chief of staff Valentin Yumashev. “After the failure of Chernomyrdin’s nomination, Valentin visibly started to panic. The previous influence which he and his mentor Boris Berezovsky exerted on the formulation of policy decisions was gone. When he needs to, Primakov talks directly to the president without Yumashev’s mediation. Other members of the government have no need of [Yumashev] either. But the chief of staff somehow has to regain the ground he has lost, and to think about the future. So he is looking for something profitable to do, and is trying to offer his services.” This is how Primakov’s team views the situation.

It is quite possible that the prime minister himself sees the Kremlin’s proposals in a somewhat different light and is not reacting to them for other reasons. As a man with a great deal of experience, he might, for example, have noticed that it is better to be patient than to rush in. He who understands life takes his time. Moreover, he has no reason to try to expand his powers; Yeltsin does not put any constraints on him as it is. If Primakov has a presidential future ahead of him, it depends more on the result of his talks with the IMF than on his participation in election campaigns.

However that may be, it is unlikely that Primakov can be lured by plans for a takeover. It would take a long time to persuade him, just as it did for his nomination as prime minister. The “neutralization” of Yeltsin is a job for someone else. No one in the inner circle fits the bill. Anyone so foolhardy would be slung out of the Kremlin then and there. Success of the plan depends on the consolidated efforts of the entire political elite. The likelihood is that the aim is to bring the heterogeneous political forces to a mutual understanding and cooperation. Parliamentarians, governors and pretenders to the throne have been asked not to rock the boat–in other words, not to demand the immediate resignation of Yeltsin and call for early elections, but to help to quietly shift the responsibility for running the country onto Primakov. There are different ways of reacting to this proposal. The temptation to “force” the situation is very great, especially among those who are tired of waiting for the presidential seat finally to be vacated. Alexander Lebed and Yuri Luzhkov are prime examples of such. Moreover, the presidential contenders have little to no interest in bolstering Primakov’s position. The last thing they need is another rival. The very idea of participating in the operation planned by Yeltsin’s entourage grates upon many people. Why would a decent person contemplate working with those who foisted an incapacitated president on the country and now don’t know how to get rid of him?

There is some justification for both the impatience of the candidates-in-waiting and the moral scrupulousness of those who voted according to their conscience in 1996. But it is not a question of how justified these sentiments are. It is rather how productive they are. What’s done is done. There now needs to be a rational decision on how to extract the country from a ridiculous situation with as little damage as possible. What alternatives are there to the plan for the “political hospitalization” of Yeltsin? One is to force him to resign voluntarily. Another is not to interfere in the natural course of events. It would obviously be much more difficult to bundle Yeltsin off into retirement than to persuade him to share power with a prime minister favorably inclined toward him. The members of the “round table” could persuade him. They have, after all, on their side the bosses of the presidential administration and, to all appearances, his family. The result of this consensual decision would satisfy everyone apart from the more restless of the potential successors. The second option–to sit and wait–suits only Yeltsin and those few opposition politicians whose view is that the worse it gets, the better it is for them. As for the majority of the population, they have not yet come to believe enough in the stability of Russian constitutionalism to attach significance to such trifles as how to remove a sick old man from power. For the electorate in the throes of a crisis, the question of how to earn their daily bread is far more important.

Elena Dikun is a columnist with the Obshchaya gazeta.