The book on Chile’s free-market autocrat, General Augusto Pinochet, is one well thumbed by a certain class of Russian politician. Would-be presidents like Aleksandr Lebed, the governor of Krasnoyarsk and Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, admire the way he shoved capitalism down the gagging throats of a fractious population and made them like it. Now Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, apparently mailing in his entry in the presidential sweepstakes, has found a different chapter in the Pinochet saga, the one called “immunity.”
Primakov, the gray ex-spy and former diplomat, tried to work a deal last week which would have put the erratic and now literally dyspeptic president, Boris Yeltsin, into a comfortable and cosseted semi-retirement. In Primakov’s conception, the president would agree not to dismiss the government (i.e., Primakov) or the parliament, and the parliament would agree not to provoke the president with impeachment proceedings, “no-confidence” votes or the like. The president would also get a pension, some really sweet perks (free travel, medical care, a household staff), and, best of all, a lifetime seat in the Federation Council (the upper house of parliament), whose members enjoy immunity from prosecution. (That’s the Pinochet touch: The retired dictator enjoys immunity as a lifetime member of the Chilean Senate.)
Who could resist such a sweet deal? Apparently everyone. In the Duma, radical communists, centrists and reformers all rejected surrender of parliamentary prerogatives. Boris Yeltsin, through a spokesman (reinforced by soundless videotape of a Yeltsin-Primakov meeting in Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital), announced his opposition to any limitation on the constitutional powers of any branch of government. Primakov had apparently not consulted Yeltsin before he put his proposal in a letter to Gennady Seleznev, speaker of the Duma. Yeltsin was said to be furious at this act of lèse majesté. Whatever the state of his heart, his stomach or his other debilitated organs, the president apparently thinks his immune system is just fine. Speculation among Kremlin pundits–should they be called Kremlinologists?–runs toward the obvious. Despite his demurrals, they say, the 67-year-old prime minister is running for president. The deal he proposed would ensure his place at the head of the government until the presidency comes open. With his premiership secure, he could then nail down an alliance with political soulmate Yuri Luzhkov to form an “authoritarian modernizing regime” that would overcome centrifugal forces and reconstruct a strong Russian state.
If Primakov is really running for president, he must be cheered by the fading fortunes of Aleksandr Lebed. The tough-talking retired general is fighting to assert his control in Krasnoyarsk, the vast Siberian region of which he is governor, but he is faring poorly in a power struggle with Anatoly Bykov, the local oligarch. As successive Moscow tax collectors have learned, when a government with no money faces a businessman with no scruples, the result is no contest. Bykov, who controls the Krasnoyarsk aluminum industry, wants to expand into a vertically integrated combine with hydroelectric power, alumina and coal. Lebed opposes the move, not for ideological reasons but apparently because Bykov will not agree to what Lebed considers a reasonable level of taxation. The outcome may turn on who gets control of Krasugol, a coal company in which the federal government holds a major stake. The feds will do Lebed no favors.