On May 15, 283 members of the 450-seat State Duma voted to impeach President Boris Yeltsin as criminally responsible for Russia’s war against Chechnya, the rebellious province in the Russian Caucasus. Three days later, 293 members voted to confirm as Russia’s prime minister one of the leading perpetrators of that disastrous campaign, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin. Go figure.

The first vote fell short of the two thirds (300 votes) needed to impeach. The second was well beyond the simple majority (226 votes) needed to approve Stepashin’s nomination as successor to the fired Yevgeny Primakov. Both votes showed that Boris Yeltsin can still rally a yin-yang coalition of failed “reformers,” thugged-individualist tycoons, apparatchiks, ex-Chekists and brownshirted whackos, to defeat the communists and their allies.

For another year at least, until the 2000 elections, the ailing president, with his approval rating down in the low single digits, leads this rag-tag political army by default. He is the only alternative to communist rule, a powerful threat that brings together all kinds of otherwise mutually hostile interests.

Yeltsin personally is not important to this process. His actual contributions to political strategy, or to any other element of statecraft or governance, are hidden by secrecy and lies. The dwindling number of Russians with an interest in the formation of public policy attributes Kremlin decisions to “the collective Yeltsin,” an inner circle of advisers that includes presidential daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, and former deputy prime minister Anatoly Chubais, among others. It is the same kitchen cabinet that ran and financed Yeltsin’s presidential campaign in 1996. Additional backing comes from Vladimir Putin, head of the Federal Security Service (successor to the Soviet secret police), former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and on critical votes in the Duma from Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the theatrical ultranationalist and anti-Semite.