President Boris Yeltsin’s latest illness has been greeted with curious equanimity in Western capitals. No such calm exists in Moscow, where the rumor mill is in full swing. Word is out that, due to chronic illness — depression, Parkinson’s disease or just plain flu — Yeltsin is now unable to perform even the minimal range of tasks we have come to associate with his "virtual presidency."
Accordingly, the race to find a successor is heating up. The president is the linchpin of Russia’s fragile political system, but there is no ready-made successor waiting in the wings. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is the perennial "obvious" candidate. The problem is that he has all the charisma one would expect of a 60-year old gas industry executive. His party, Russia is Our Home, performed dismally in the 1995 Duma election (with 8 percent support). Further, Chernomyrdin himself has never won a competitive election for public office. (He even lost when he ran for the Congress of People’s Deputies in his home town of Orenburg in 1990.) Still, Chernomyrdin is a figure around which the financial oligarchs seem willing to rally — from Boris Berezovsky to Vladimir Potanin. A Chernomyrdin candidacy could flop, however, opening the door to a more radical leader. The oligarchs cannot afford to gamble on the presidential election, for the stakes are too high.
The two most viable candidates in current opinion polls are Aleksandr Lebed and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Lebed has high positive poll ratings but has neither money, nor organization, nor media exposure. Victory in next month’s election for the governorship of Krasnoyarsk krai could give Lebed a base from which to launch a presidential bid — especially if some banking interests decide that he is their man.
Luzhkov has been steadily building his presidential persona for months. On March 14, he addressed a conference in Moscow dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the 1st Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (precursors of the Bolsheviks). In his speech he laid out a model of paternalistic capitalism, allegedly distinct from the "people’s capitalism" of Boris Nemtsov (with its neoliberal overtones) or the "oligarchic capitalism" of the status quo. As Luzhkov does not have his own nationwide party organization, his political strategy seems to be to unite all the left-leaning forces while avoiding cooperation with the Communist party. (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 17) (For an in-depth analysis of Luzhkov’s flirtation with Russia’s socialist parties and movements, see Aleksandr Buzgalin’s article, "Luzhkov as a ‘New Socialist,’" forthcoming in Prism, March 20.)
Both champions of the democrats — Nemtsov and Grigory Yavlinsky — seem doomed to look on from the sidelines. Nemtsov, no longer Yeltsin’s chosen son, is politically isolated, though he is still using media interviews to try to launch a crusade against the oligarchs who have built what he describes as "this disgusting regime" in Russia. (Kommersant-daily, March 17; Moscow Times, March 19) Yavlinsky has the backing of a national organization, Yabloko, and some money and media coverage from the Most group. He seems more intent, however, on playing the role of leading oppositionist than that of national leader. He seems firmly set in his role as the best prime minister that Russian never had.
Belgrade Slips a Punch; Avoids Sanctions for Now.