By Brian Whitmore
Russia’s super-presidential system was designed back in 1993. And while it may now seem incredibly short-sighted, it seems there is a design flaw–a bug, if you will. The entire system could crash in 2000 when Yeltsin goes. Call it Russia’s political Y2K problem.
The problem is that the fabled “Family”–the cabal of Kremlin insiders who got rich and powerful due to their proximity to Yeltsin–are bumping into a biological reality. One of these days, sooner or later, one way or another, Yeltsin is going to leave the Kremlin. The system as set up now works beautifully for the Family and its state-assets fattened oligarchs. But when Yeltsin leaves, things will undoubtedly go a bit haywire. Elections are supposed to choose Yeltsin’s successor, and elections could prove deadly for the Family.
For some oligarchs, this is the functional equivalent of the power grid crashing, electronic bank accounts evaporating, planes dropping out of the sky and other calamities associated with Y2K crises.
The Family–first daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, oil tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, Kremlin Chief of Staff Aleksandr Voloshin and presidential ghostwriter Valentin Yumashev–is safe as Yeltsin is alive and kicking (though the more feebly he’s kicking, the better). But as soon as he goes, they are toast–or so they appear to assume.
This is what drives all the searches for a suitable successor–Viktor Chernomyrdin, Sergei Stepashin, Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr Lebed–to the same inescapable conclusion. No matter how loyal a president-in-waiting appears, there is no guarantee that he will not turn on the Family once his wait ends.
Once securely in the Kremlin, what use would Stepashin, Putin or Lebed have for Dyachenko, Berezovsky and Abramovich? None whatsoever. Any new president who wants to make a clean break in the public mind with the corruption of the past decade will need to at least appear to clean house upon coming to office. Either way, Berezovsky gets it.
Therefore, the Family is not going to trust ***any*** heir, no matter how loyal he may be to Yeltsin.
When Sergei Stepashin was appointed prime minister in May, the consensus was that the Kremlin valued his “loyalty.” There was also his law enforcement background, which would come in handy if the need arose to declare a state of emergency.
Just eighty-two days after his appointment, Stepashin was cast by Yeltsin on to the trash heap of loyal former prime ministers. Analysts such as the respected journalist Aleksandr Zhilin said that Stepashin’s ouster came because he refused to go along with plans to subvert the constitution and cancel elections.
Enter Vladimir Putin. Putin’s most attractive attribute, from the Kremlin’s point of view, was his loyalty to Yeltsin. And, yes, there is also his KGB background should emergency rule be needed.
Putin has been in office for a month and the media is already whispering that he is on the way out–to be traded for Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed, who was a Kremlin security tsar in 1996 and negotiated peace in Chechnya. But even if it’s Lebed who ultimately comes to power through elections, why would he tolerate the Family more than Putin, say, or Yevgeny Primakov?
For the Family, Y2K is a systems problem: It all crashes with elections. Solving Y2K means rooting the democracy out of the system like a defective line of computer code.
RUMORS AND COUNTER-RUMORS
One sign of the systemic breakdown is the preponderance of rumors and political conspiracy theories. Lately, it has been getting to be a bit much–even for Moscow.
Last week, the newspaper Izvestia reported that Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed may soon be named Russia’s prime minister, replacing Vladimir Putin. Lebed himself predicted that he would soon be called upon to clean up the mess which he says others have made of Russia.
One scenario has Lebed replacing Putin outright. Another has Yeltsin resigning early, Putin becoming acting president and Lebed becoming prime minister. The clever ex-KGB spy and the popular retired general are a winning combination if Kremlin insiders decide to declare a state of emergency, thus circumventing those pesky elections which are getting so much harder to fix.
The Lebed scenario is just the latest twist on the long-running emergency rule scenario which has been making the rounds in Russia’s capital lately. For months, Moscow’s manic rumor mill has been churning out speculation that Yeltsin will do everything possible to stay in power beyond his legal term in office. Fearing the reckoning and prosecutions which could result if an unfriendly regime were to take over the Kremlin, Yeltsin and his inner circle are allegedly plotting to hang on to power at all costs.
Yeltsin will never leave the Kremlin alive, the argument goes. He will use any pretext to declare emergency rule. He will provoke a crisis with the communists. He will exploit tensions in Dagestan. He will unite Russia and Belarus and declare himself president of the newly formed state. The scenario’s general thrust is that Berezovsky is in cahoots with Lebed, and is counting on the general to take over when Yeltsin passes from the scene to protect both his safety and his business interests.
Some have even accused the two of manufacturing Russia’s most recent conflict in the Caucasus and the recent wave of terrorist bombings in Moscow. Last month, the newspaper Segodnya reported, citing unidentified sources, that Kremlin chief of Staff Aleksandr Voloshin, a Berezovsky protege, had met in secret with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basaev just prior to the Islamic uprising in Dagestan. Last week, the newspaper Moskovsky komsomolets has published what it says are transcripts of telephone conversations between Berezovsky and Chechen rebel leaders. State Duma bad boy Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggested that Berezovsky and Lebed were behind the series of terrorist attacks which have plagued Russia and should be arrested.
The newspapers Moskovsky komsomolets and Segodnya are generally loyal to the Kremlin’s bitterest foe, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Last month, Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov–Russia’s most popular politician–joined forces in a political alliance called Fatherland-All Russia, which analysts say could dominate December’s parliamentary elections here. It also could put either Luzhkov or Primakov in the Kremlin in next summer’s presidential elections–if they happen, a possibility which has the Kremlin seeing red.
For every Kremlin conspiracy theory there is an equal and opposite conspiracy theory. Some are even saying that the Family is finally coming to grips with the fact that they can’t keep Yeltsin in power forever. Here, two “endgame” scenarios are in play.
One has Yeltsin resigning early, thus wrongfooting his political opponents–especially Luzhkov–and throwing the country into chaos. So terrified are they of Luzhkov taking over the Kremlin, the Family is even considering forcing the aging and ailing Yeltsin into early retirement–handing power over to someone younger–some say Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, some say Lebed–who they hope will protect them for a long time.
The constitution says that in the event of any president’s early departure from office–due to death, resignation or impeachment–elections must take place within three months. If Yeltsin resigns soon, and presidential elections were scheduled for December, this would put a big monkey wrench in Luzhkov’s plans.
Earlier this year, Luzhkov moved up the date for Moscow’s mayoral elections to December 19–cutting his term short by half a year–to coincide with elections to the State Duma. Luzhkov’s party, Fatherland-All Russia, is expected to fare well in December’s parliamentary polls. The mayor hopes that this will serve as a springboard for the presidential election six months later in June 2000.
Luzhkov has said that he doesn’t plan to take a seat in the Duma if he wins one. Instead, he hopes to win reelection as mayor on December 19 and run for president next June. Then, even if he failed to win the presidency, at least he would still be mayor.
But if Yeltsin resigns in September and presidential elections are set for December, then Luzhkov will need to choose: Risk it all and run for president, or play it safe and a seek virtually assured third term as mayor. Another scenario has Yeltsin and the family cutting a deal and bowing out gracefully. Moskovsky komsomolets recently reported that Dyachenko is currently trying to broker the Family’s immunity with the presidential front-runner Primakov: Primakov gets the Kremlin, the “Family” gets off.
Brian Whitmore is a reporter for The Moscow Times and the Boston Globe.