Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 213

Russian observers have been reacting cautiously to Vladimir Putin’s apparent reversal of fortune. Two days ago, after a week or more of rumors that he would be fired, the prime minister received a strong re-endorsement from President Boris. The caution of the observers is understandable, given Yeltsin’s history of handing out and then breaking promises to prime ministers and other officials that they would serve with Yeltsin through his last term.

On the one hand, Putin seems to be in a stronger position than his predecessors, including even Yevgeny Primakov. Yeltsin’s vote of confidence in Putin was apparently a reaction to the prime minister’s continued popularity with the public and, more important, with the Russian military command, made possible by his hard line on Chechnya. Yesterday Putin scored yet another victory, when Yeltsin appointed Sergei Ivanov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), to be secretary of the Security Council, the powerful presidential advisory body. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Yakushkin said that Putin, who headed the FSB prior to being named prime minister last August, had recommended Ivanov for the job (Russia agencies, November 15). On the other hand, the Kremlin press service announced yesterday that Yeltsin, not Putin, would head Russia’s delegation to the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is being held later this week in Istanbul. Putin will not attend the meeting, Kremlin officials said (Russian agencies, November 15). Even if Yeltsin decided to go to Istanbul in place of Putin to protect the prime minister and Russia from criticism over Chechnya–as some observers have interpreted Yeltsin’s decision–this in itself suggests that Yeltsin and the Kremlin inner circle do not view Putin as a political actor of the first rank.

The newspaper Segodnya, which is generally pro-Luzhkov and not strongly pro-Putin, gave an indication of why Yeltsin might consider the prime minister lower on the power totem pole. The Kremlin inner circle–meaning the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, presidential daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and others–continues to control the country’s main “financial flows” (meaning the customs services, the finance ministry, various monopolies like Gazprom and Transneft, and a number of major oil companies), which is ultimately more significant than the sympathies of either the public or the armed forces: “The strong hand is not the one which beats terrorists, but the one which signs checks” (Segodnya, November 16). Meanwhile, several other papers maintained that the current broad support for Putin would not last. Kommersant, which is controlled by Berezovsky, predicted that Putin’s popularity would peak in December, and that it would be “extremely difficult” to sustain it until next June’s presidential vote (Kommersant, November 16). Likewise, Andrei Kolesnikov, a commentator for Izvestia, which has been more sympathetic to Putin, wrote that while Putin has suddenly become a kind of “consolidating figure” around which the fractured Russian elite can unite, this “nonaggression pact” is unlikely to last beyond the December 19 parliamentary election (Izvestia, November 16).

A major factor in how Putin fares, of course, is the course of the war in Chechnya. The magazine Kommersant-Vlast this week compared Putin’s popularity ratings with those of Primakov during his tenure as prime minister. The magazine found that the only difference between Putin and Primakov, whose rating also rose steadily throughout his time in office, is the Chechen war. Without it, the magazine wrote, little would remain of Putin’s current rating (Kommersant-Vlast, November 16). It should be noted, however, that Kommersant-Vlast is also part of Berezovsky’s media empire, and thus the article may have been part of what appears to be an ongoing campaign to undermine Putin.