Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 197

President Boris Yeltsin today denounced recent claims in the Russian media that he had cooled on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, his designated successor, as “lies.” Yeltsin, who met with Putin today, praised him for taking the “right tone” during the European Union summit on October 22 in Helsinki. Putin had defended Russia’s military operation in Chechnya in the face of growing criticism following the apparent October 21 missile attack on the Chechen capital. Yeltsin’s reassurances concerning Putin, however, are unlikely to quell the growing speculation that he–or, at any rate, members of his inner circle–may intend to cut short the prime minister’s meteoric rise. Yeltsin, is notoriously jealous of his power and prerogatives, and this trait probably continues to motivate him even though his constitutional term ends next June (Russian agencies, October 25).

Things started to look shaky for Putin last week (October 20), while he was visiting the troops in the North Caucasus–even being taken for a spin in an Su-25, a photo-op clearly designed to raise his profile even higher. Yeltsin that day convened a meeting of his power ministers, including Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev and Federal Guards Service chief Yuri Krapivin. The meeting, which was also attended by Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin, was devoted to the situation in the North Caucasus, and various Russian television stations subsequently showed footage of Yeltsin ordering the gathered ministers to write down what he was about to say (Russian agencies, October 20; NTV, October 24). It seems clear that the meeting and subsequent footage was designed to show that Yeltsin–despite his visibly deteriorating health–still controls the power ministries and has final say over military actions in Chechnya, even if Putin is in charge of day-to-day military operations in the breakaway region. Yeltsin has in the past gathered the power ministers before the television cameras to remind them who is boss.

NTV television’s Itogi program last night made much of Yeltsin’s meeting with the power ministers sans Putin. Today, in an apparent response, Putin told reporters that prior to the October 20 meeting, he had asked Yeltsin to meet with the power ministers (Russian agencies, October 25).

Putin, however, did not mention several other Kremlin actions last week. On October 22, presidential spokesman Dmitri Yakushkin told reporters that it would be premature to view Putin as Yeltsin’s designated heir, saying there are “other priorities” on Yeltsin’s “agenda” that supersede the questions of whom he will support in next year’s presidential election (Russian agencies, October 22). The day before (Thursday, October 21), the Kremlin press service had suggested a meeting between Yeltsin and former Prime Minister Primakov was in the offing. Primakov subsequently called such a meeting “inexpedient,” given his disagreement with policies being carried out by Yeltsin’s “entourage.” Clearly angered at the rebuff, the Kremlin responded that Primakov was worried about his falling ratings. Recent polls had showed Putin catching up with and even surpassing Primakov (Russian agencies, October 21). Nonetheless, Putin might well wonder why the Kremlin suddenly wanted to meet with its most popular critic and the most likely opponent to the Kremlin’s candidate in next year’s election.

On top of all this, some observers have suggested that last week’s bombing of Djohar may have been a deliberate move to damage Putin, who at the time was flying to Helsinki to attend the European Union meeting, during which he tried to defend his government’s military operation in Chechnya. Former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko told NTV’s Itogi last night that the attack was a “provocation” which “has cost Putin dearly” (NTV, October 24). A newspaper this weekend reported that the explosion in the Chechen capital was caused by four ground-to-ground missiles launched from North Ossetia (Izvestia, October 23). A senior Russian military official denied involvement in the attack, saying the explosion was the result of a fight between Chechen “bandit groups” (NTV, October 23).

The recent moves against Putin may have been initiated not by Yeltsin, but instead by members of his inner circle. This past September, when Putin was attending the Asian summit in New Zealand, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko, a reputed ally of Boris Berezovsky, fired the head of the state oil pipeline company Transneft, effectively usurping Putin’s authority. One newspaper wrote today that while it is “not possible to say with certainty whether the explosion [in Djohar] was coincidence or a premeditated action of those who want to set up the premier,” there have been “too many unpleasant coincidences for Mr. Putin” (Vremya-MN, October 25).

In any case, it should be remembered that in 1997 Yeltsin promised Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, who at that time were both serving as deputy prime ministers, that they would retain their posts until the end of Yeltsin’s term. Both were subsequently fired.