Almost 40% of the members did not vote, but on Friday, theState Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, confirmed Sergei Kirienko asPrime Minister by 251-25. So ended one of the strangest months in Russia’srecent political history.
President Boris Yeltsin touched off a political mini-crisis at the end ofMarch when he fired Viktor Chernomyrdin and named the unknown SergeiKirienko to replace him. By refusing to consult the Duma in advance,Yeltsin guaranteed a confrontation. The Duma twice voted Kirienko down, buton the third ballot the agrarians and ultra-nationalists, ordinarily alliesof the staunchly anti-Kirienko Communist Party, apparently switched sides.”Apparently” because the Duma decided to keep the ballot secret — notexactly a model of parliamentary democracy. The Western press hailedKirienko’s confirmation as a victory for President Yeltsin, and that it was.But probably neither he nor any other political figure or institutionemerged stronger from this affair.
President Yeltsin may now be weaker than before, a lame-duck and part-timeruler who once again showed himself capricious and despotic. His dismissalof Chernomyrdin, who had served him since 1992, was abrupt and never clearlyexplained. His choice of the thirty-five year-old Kirienko, who less than ayear ago was running an oil refinery in Nizhny Novgorod, was bizarre,perhaps a sign of unwillingness to tolerate a political rival in highoffice. And his threat to dismiss the Duma and force a new election undernew rules that he would issue by decree was typically autocratic.
The Duma by yielding survived this confrontation. Survival is no trivialaccomplishment: the Duma’s predecessor body, the Supreme Soviet, did notsurvive its challenge to President Yeltsin in 1993, when he disbanded it ina tank assault and artillery barrage that left several hundred dead. Butthe Duma showed again that the president can ignore it and bully it and gethis way.
The new prime minister takes office as Boris Yeltsin’s creature, a man withno political base and no clear program. In his public statements over thepast three weeks, Kirienko has contrasted state monopoly power (good) withprivate monopoly power (bad). The threat that Kirienko may pose to theinterests of Russia’s new oligarchs gained credibility when the most visibleof these tycoons, Boris Berezovsky, publicly attacked Kirienko’s nomination.And the support Kirienko received from regional governors — nearly all ofthe upper house of parliament, where the governors sit, backed hisnomination, as did the “Russia’s Regions” faction in the Duma — flowedabove all from their desire to curb the power of the electrical, gas, oil,and communications companies.
But opposition to the oligarchs is not a program, and promotion of statecontrol over the so-called “natural monopolies” is not reform. Theoligarchs are in fact the product of proclaimed reformers like former PrimeMinister Yegor Gaidar and recently fired First Deputy Prime Minister AnatolyChubais. These officials, placed in office by Boris Yeltsin and still loyalto him, designed the privatization program that allowed a very small groupof men to acquire enormous state assets at essentially no cost. Thesetycoons, who preside over financial-industrial conglomerates of immense sizeand power, then used their wealth to finance Boris Yeltsin’s re-electioncampaign. Perhaps Boris Yeltsin now wants to break them and has found inSergei Kirienko the best man in Russia to do the job. But perhaps not.
The change in government shows no obvious route to recovery for the Russianeconomy, which has been shrinking since 1992. Kirienko himself says the”very small gains” made in 1997, when gross domestic product rose by 0.4%,were wiped out by rising interest rates and falling commodity prices in thewake of the Asian crisis.
It is not clear what Kirienko can or will do that last year’s “dream team”(as Western boosters called them) of Chubais and then First Deputy PrimeMinister Boris Nemtsov could or would not. Boris Yeltsin, fitfully incharge, gives no direction. As the events of the past month have shown,Yeltsin is in command but does not lead.