Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 11

By Vladimir Mironov

The events which took place during the last month of spring brought to an end two major political processes which had been underway in the Russian Federation for the last year and a half, and initiated a third. First, on May 12 President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree which had been expected for months: Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who had been in charge of the White House for little more than eight months–was sacked. Second, on May 15 the attempt by some parliamentarians, led by CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov, to remove the head of state from power by legal means ended in failure. Yeltsin’s opponents were unable to secure the support of the two thirds of Duma deputies (over 300 votes) required to start the impeachment process. Third, on May 19 the new chairman of the Council of Ministers, Sergei Stepashin, was elected at the first attempt by a parliamentary majority (301 votes). The media immediately linked these three events and began talking of yet another victory for the head of state over his political enemies.

But is it a real victory or a Pyrrhic one? Will what has happened influence the course of political life in the country lead to fundamental change in Russia’s political landscape and alter the developmental trends which appeared in late 1998 and early 1999?

Before we answer these questions, we should determine what actually happened in Moscow in May 1999. First, it appears that the president demonstrated his consistency in his methods for dealing with awkward political situations: He exploited his constitutional rights as head of state to “explode” the situation and change the rules of the game. Second, the Communist Party leaders can hardly have expected to set the impeachment process in motion–their supporters numbered just over 240 deputies, and they were also well aware of the Yeltsin administration’s ability to “win over” dithering parliamentarians. Their action was more of a pre-election maneuver designed to discredit the political opponents of the communists and the People’s Patriotic Union as a whole, and the best outcome Yeltsin’s political enemies could have hoped for was that it might have prompted the head of state to resign voluntarily.

Against this background, the leadership of the Duma and the leading parliamentary parties managed to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to actions of the head of state–who had refused to cooperate with the representative legislature–and lobbied for a swift, positive vote on the candidacy of the president’s placeman for the post of prime minister.

The ploy to engineer early parliamentary and presidential elections in a legitimate way failed. The adversaries began some complex political maneuvering in an attempt to gain the upper hand and to determine when the election campaign would begin.


During Yevgeny Primakov’s tenure as prime minister, the political life of the country could be characterized as calm and stable. This was fostered both by the existence of a number of centers of political power (president, government, State Duma and Federation Council) which restrained and counterbalanced each other and which had come to a sort of unspoken agreement, and also by the personality of the prime minister himself. The unflappable and to some extent phlegmatic Primakov left his mark on the course of political events. He was accustomed to consistency in his team, rationality, predictability, collegiate decisionmaking and transparency in staff appointments. Moreover, involving several power centers in the selection procedure for candidates for this or that government post, and monitoring the staffing and other resources of the groups participating in the consultations, meant that it was possible to predict their outcome.

The removal of Primakov has created a situation whereby just one power center (the president) and the “explosive” temperament of the head of state will attempt to dominate the political life of the country. The course of events will depend on the circumspect, changeable and unexpected–in a word, unpredictable–nature of Boris Yeltsin’s actions. The defining role in decisionmaking will be played by intuition, staff appointments will be governed by exclusivity and “nepotism” and the increased influence of informal groups.


Russia’s political Olympus has not so much changed as returned to the status it held in August 1998. The president is back at the summit, having refused to search for a compromise with the parliamentarians. He has once again demonstrated his desire to have the last word in determining the composition of the highest political elite. There may be a number of reasons for this. First, Boris Yeltsin is not used to feeling superfluous. Recently, Russia’s key political figures had managed to establish a working mechanism which allowed them to take decisions and reach agreement on contentious issues. The politicians had no need of an arbiter-president to deflate political tension and to prevent confrontation from developing into open conflict. Because of this political marginalization, the head of state may have felt a certain political discomfort. Second, the president is openly trying to take control not only of all major state decisions, but also of the financial flows. There may be several explanations for this. It is possible that Yeltsin has decided to take part in the elections himself, or hopes to use the financial resources to “push through” his candidate for president, who would guarantee him and his “family” security in the post-Yeltsin era (though worldwide political realities are such that it is unlikely that any politician would keep promises of constancy if the political circumstances change when he is in power).

The disappearance of the second power center in the executive structures has turned the prime minister (currently Sergei Stepashin) into a high-ranking official rather than a politician responsible for the social block in the government. Only firm control of the economic block can gain the prime minister authority and influence. However, it is very difficult to achieve this. First, Sergei Stepashin–who has spent all his time in Boris Yeltsin’s team handling issues of national security–does not have the required number of devoted and loyal qualified economists. Second, he does not have the financial and material resources to guarantee him a certain autonomy of movement (unlike Viktor Chernomyrdin, who always had the fuel and energy complex behind him). Third, because the government’s sole source of legitimacy is the president, it automatically becomes an adjunct to the head of state’s administration. Bearing in mind that the head of this administration, Aleksandr Voloshin, has an economic background, he is “destined” to intervene in the government’s economic decisionmaking process. What is more, the economic state of the country does not permit him to exert any real influence on the course of the Russian economy. The range of possible decisions is minimal. They would be implemented by any leader, regardless of his ideological persuasion. Consequently, control of the economic block is of a symbolic nature. Fourth, the split which has emerged in the government (First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko clearly considers himself to be a viable candidate for prime minister and tirelessly demonstrates his desire to occupy the post) will either force Sergei Stepashin to devote time to suppressing the mutiny, or will turn the former foreign minister into a puppet not just of the head of state personally, but also of his closest circle. Particular individuals in this circle are not important, because they can be replaced at a moment’s notice on the whim of the president.

For now, Sergei Stepashin is prepared to fight to concentrate the real levers of power in his hands, as attested both by his attempts to appoint loyal professionals to leading positions in the economic block (Mikhail Zadornov, Aleksandr Zhukov), and by his intention to work more intensively with the regional authorities. He is trying to ensure their political support, albeit at the price of having the rules of play laid down not by the prime minister but by the leaders of the larger and more influential regions. These leaders have begun actively building election unions and coalitions (Fatherland, All Russia, Voice of Russia) in an attempt to consolidate their positions before the inevitable talks begin with the federal authorities on the principles of the election campaigns and the future of state power.

The political events of May seriously damaged the position of the State Duma in the federal power structures. However, bearing in mind that the strengthening of its position in 1998 and early 1999 was informal rather than enshrined in law, it would be more appropriate to talk of a reestablishment of the rules for interaction between the branches of federal power as laid down by the Constitution and Russian legislation. The deputies of the lower house of the Federal Assembly did not perceive the president’s candidate for prime minister as a strategic choice by the head of state, attesting to some defined socioeconomic and political program to reform the country, over which it would be worth entering into confrontation and trying to influence Yeltsin’s position. Even the leaders of the parties loyal to him (in particular Russia Is Our Home leader Vladimir Ryzhkov) noted that this was a tactical move, possibly not the last before Boris Yeltsin’s term expires, in pursuit of narrow political ends (in particular the dissolution of the State Duma and early parliamentary elections).

In supporting the appointment of Sergei Stepashin as prime minister, the parliamentarians were not committing themselves to anything regarding the policies the government would follow. The deputies were merely accepting that the government is the “patrimony” of the head of state, who can replace its leaders as he sees fit. There was no point clashing with him over this and giving him the opportunity to legitimately dissolve the State Duma. But this does not entail automatic support for the bills drawn up by the executive branch of power. In other words, the parliamentarians have retained their freedom for political maneuvering in their legislative activity.

The members of the upper house of the Federal Assembly distanced themselves from the confrontation in Moscow. Apart from the more committed governors and republic presidents of both right and left, almost nobody took part in the swordplay. But after the government crisis receded, the speaker of the Federation Council, Yegor Stroev, noted that the issue of changing the constitution is becoming more and more urgent. In particular, he believes that it is essential for the State Duma to take a more active role both in the procedure for appointing the prime minister and in his dismissal. In other words, Yeltsin’s flaunting of his authority has strengthened the arguments of those who advocate a redistribution of powers among the president, the government, the State Duma and the Federation Council, to favor the legislature.

The regional authorities appear to understand that the issue of strengthening state intervention in the socioeconomic and political life of the country is resolved. This process will continue regardless of the particular figures at the top of the political pyramid. Given this, any attempt to reinforce the regional element, which is fraught with the possibility of the territorial disintegration of Russia, has little prospect of success and will be blocked by the federal authorities. Consequently, it is essential for them both to avoid providing a motive for the federal institutions to intervene, and to bolster their position in the federal structures, to lobby for the interests of their territories, to bind federal politicians to particular commitments, and to demonstrate their value, loyalty and willingness to implement the new policy. However, Yevgeny Primakov’s dismissal has disoriented them to some extent, because they have lost a politician capable of consolidating a large part of the federal and regional elites. Against this background, they face a difficult search for a new political figure (or an attempt to resuscitate the old one), capable of becoming a symbol of stability, predictability and statehood, and of guaranteeing both that the changes which have already taken place in the political and economic structure of the state are reinforced, and that a particular trend in their development is followed.

All these political maneuvers are taking place against the background of a society which has gone quiet. However, it would appear that this is not a frightened society, but a society made wiser by historical experience, which has decided to wait patiently for the parliamentary and presidential elections without falling for the provocative actions of today’s politicians, many of whom should not be allowed to play with matches–they might burn down the house.

Vladimir Alekseevich Mironov is a senior fellow of the Institute of International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.