Russia’s Grande Dame: A portrait of Viktoria Mitina
By Yelena Dikun
Women have always worked for top Kremlin leaders in one capacity or other, but until recently their roles were secondary — secretaries, assistants, consultants. President Boris Yeltsin’s second presidential term has witnessed a marked "feminization" of the presidential administration. The idea is generally credited to the President’s press secretary, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who felt the "female perspective" was lacking in the corridors of power. Moreover, according to people in Yeltsin’s entourage, the president, who has gotten much weaker since his operation, needs an unobtrusive guardian. The more women there are around the president, the more easily this is organized.
The first high-ranking official post in the Kremlin held by a woman — that of presidential adviser responsible for the president’s image — was given to President Yeltsin’s younger daughter Tatyana Dyachenko. Next, the 37-year-old Dzhakhan Pollyeva was appointed a senior presidential adviser and speechwriter. Pollyeva was brought into the Kremlin by the deputy chief of the president’s administration and her former supervisor, Mikhail Komissar. Pollyeva, a lawyer by training, had earlier worked in the Higher Komsomol School, then on the staff of Sergei Shakhrai, and was recently an adviser to First Deputy Premier Boris Nemtsov.
The third high-ranking woman to find a place on the Kremlin Olympus was 48-year-old Viktoria Mitina: last November, she was appointed deputy chief of the president’s administration, with responsibility for regional policy.
Viktoria Mitina graduated from Moscow’s Institute of Electronic Technology and worked until 1990 in the Molecular Electronics Institute, at the "Mikron" plant. When perestroika began, she entered politics. In 1988, she was a member of the CPSU’s "Democratic Platform." Two years later, she was elected as a deputy to the Zelenograd District Soviet, just outside Moscow. In 1991, she became the First Deputy Prefect of the Zelenograd District, responsible for industry, science, business, land ownership and privatization. She also handled relations with the media and public relations.
Kremlin insiders explained Mitina’s appointment to the presidential administration by saying that she had been working with Boris Yeltsin for a long time. Indeed, Viktoria Aleksandrovna, a "first-wave democrat," was a member of the initiative group that nominated Yeltsin, then in disgrace, as a people’s deputy of the USSR back in 1989. From that time on, she has taken an active part in all his election campaigns. During the 1996 presidential campaign, she chaired the "Presidential Council of Trusted Persons." She not only oversaw relations with "trusted persons," but signed virtually all the contracts involved in Yeltsin’s television advertising campaign. "One of the requirements for my new job is knowledge of campaign technology. I know something about it, and therefore I help the regions in organizing the election campaign," Mitina explains.
But political experience alone is hardly enough to get someone the high post of deputy chief of the president’s administration. A decisive role in her appointment was played by Viktoria Aleksandrovna’s personal relationship with the Yeltsin family.
Incidentally, Mitina never hid the fact that she was friendly with the head of state and his family. "Boris Yeltsin and I are close. I have always been with him at the critical times. He has needed psychological or even medical help," she once admitted. Mitina is also a close friend of Tatyana Dyachenko. "With Tatyana, I don’t know whether we’re friends or sisters, or whether she’s more like my niece. All of [the president’s family] are like family to me," Mitina says.
Mitina does not specify precisely which problems in the administration she has had to take care of. She explains her silence by saying that "Those who work in the president’s administration are not public officials. They are people who serve the president. They are not independent political figures, and shouldn’t be." But some of the details of her work behind the scenes are known.
First of all, it was Mitina worked out the plan to reorganize the presidential administration. In her opinion, the administration should be divided into four main blocks: one which serves the president directly, one which oversees matters on a federal level, one which works with the regions, and one on international relations. To do this, she proposed the closure of all those branches that duplicated one another, such as the territorial branch and the branch coordinating the actions of the president’s plenipotentiary representatives in the regions. Mitina is on record as saying that the presidential administration, which currently numbers 1,500 staffers, should be cut by at least 200. She has called for abolishing the institution of presidential assistants, leaving only Vladimir Shevchenko, the head of the protocol service, and Sergei Prikhodko, the assistant on foreign affairs, in their posts. Mitina has already presented her plan to the president, though his verdict on it remains unknown.
Mitina is also in favor of changing the system of elections to the State Duma from the present majoritiarian/proportional mix to a purely first-past-the-post system; if parliament does not change the electoral law of its own accord, she advocates calling a nationwide referendum. She has chaired several closed meetings on this issue at Staraya Ploshchad [Old Square, close to the Kremlin, formerly the headquarters of the CPSU Central Committee and now the headquarters of the presidential staff]. But this proposal provoked so much opposition from members of parliament that the president’s staff began to fear its relations with the legislature would be undermined, and have backed off the idea for the moment. Some say Mitina was reprimanded for showing too much initiative.
Mitina did, however, persuade the president to issue an order in support of the "Presidential Council of Trusted Persons," which she herself heads. Mitina broached the idea of official recognition for the Council last October, while she was still deputy prefect in Zelenograd. At that time, Mitina wrote to the deputy chief of the presidential administration, Mikhail Komissar, to thank him for the reception she had received in the Kremlin from Komissar and Dyachenko. In the name of all the "trusted persons" (there are about 5,000 of them), Mitina proposed that a presidential document be drawn up giving the Council official status. Now, President Yeltsin has officially entrusted the Council with helping to conduct election campaigns at all levels and keeping the president informed about the activity of federal and regional institutions of state power. Mitina will, naturally, be the person in the presidential administration who oversees the Council’s activity.
The care the president takes of those who work for him is reciprocated by the numerous statements by Yeltsin’s proteges about the possibility, and even the desirability, of his running for a third presidential term. Mitina has expressed herself quite unambiguously on this subject: "As regards the federal elections in 2000," she has said, "if God grants Boris Nikolaevich health, that would be a good alternative for Russia." And if the president gives the command to prepare for the 2000 elections, Viktoria Aleksandrovna says she is ready to play an active role. Here, she qualified her statement a little — she said it didn’t matter whether it was Yeltsin himself, or a successor whom he respected, who was running.
Translated by Mark Eckert
Yelena Dikun is a political columnist for Obshchaya gazeta.
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