SPECULATING ON RUSSIA’S POLITICAL FUTURE
In Russia, the fortnight began amid frenzied speculation over President Boris Yeltsin’s rumored plans either to remain in power after the June 2000 presidential vote or to find a successor who could guarantee a “continuity of power”–that is, the current ruling elite’s continued control over the main levers of financial and political power. One conspiracy theory held that Yeltsin would give himself a de facto third term by uniting Russia with Belarus and/or declaring Russia a confederation, thereby effectively creating a new country and a new chief executive spot. The Belarus option was given further credence when Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, after meeting with Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk, promised to apply maximum force to completing the work on a “full-scale” union treaty
Another scenario bordered on the bizarre: Yeltsin would cancel presidential elections, ban the Communist Party and anoint Tatyana Dyachenko, his daughter and adviser, as his successor.
The speculation reached such a fever pitch that the Kremlin apparently finally found it necessary to respond, albeit through an unnamed “representative.” He promised that Yeltsin would “go down in history as the president who ensured the first legitimate changing of power” and would thus “not allow a postponement of the elections.” The Kremlin denial may help explain why many observers began to switch to the theory that the Kremlin had anointed Stepashin as heir apparent.
In all likelihood, the various theories simply reflected Kremlin contingency plans. As “Komsomolskaya pravda’s” Sergei Chugaev wrote: “If all is well with Yeltsin’s health, then we can expect a referendum on uniting with Belarus. If all is not well–a ‘Stepashin Is Our President’ campaign.”
In any case, “The Family”–the group of insiders which includes Dyachenko and the tycoon Boris Berezovsky–must have had some motive for placing allies (or manipulable figures) in charge of key ministries and agencies controlling the bulk of the state’s financial flows. They include the Finance, Railways and the Fuel and Energy Ministries, the customs and tax services and the pension fund. Another “Family” friend, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, was rumored to be on deck to take over the Gazprom natural gas monopoly. Anatoly Chubais, not fully trusted by “The Family,” was said to be facing removal as head of United Energy Systems, Russia’s electricity grid.
According to Yulia Latynina of the “Segodnya” newspaper, “The Family” was scrambling for state finances because it knew that it could not buy a victory in June 2000, even with all the money in the world. According to Latynina, “The Family” was therefore simply seeking a rather luxurious golden parachute. But actions on another front suggested that they were in fact aiming to win in June 2000.
LUZHKOV IN THE CROSSHAIRS
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was blunt: He charged that the Kremlin was gunning for him. Likewise, some media reported that a new Kremlin political planning department had made “neutralizing” Luzhkov, who has perhaps the greatest chance to win the presidency next year, its number one priority. This department was rumored to be forming a large electoral coalition, called Rossiya, to take on Luzhkov’s own bloc, Fatherland, in the December parliamentary contest.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, who now heads his own electoral bloc, announced he might run against Luzhkov in the Moscow mayoral vote, also set for this December. According to the media rumor mill, Kirienko was acting on Kremlin orders. Whatever the case, Kirienko began holding forth loudly on a subject which had previously been discussed sotto voce–corruption in the mayor’s office. He even set up a hotline which Muscovites could call in instances of corruption by city officials. The information would then be posted on a website.
REWARDS FOR BAD BEHAVIOR
Perhaps the most surreal development, however, was the fact that International Monetary Fund Managing Director Michel Camdessus arrived in St. Petersburg in the middle of this mudfest–while singing praises of the Stepashin government’s economic performance. His remarks, which included suggestions that economic stabilization in Russia is on the horizon, came, moreover, amid additional worries about decision-making in Moscow following the surprise dispatch of some 200 Russian troops to Kosovo (see below). Never mind the fact that Stepashin had only been in office for a month, so that if any economic improvements were indeed visible, the praise should go to his predecessor. Never mind that First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko had already rammed through several anti-market initiatives which would have given pause even to Yuri Maslyukov, the Communist Party economist in the previous cabinet.
The IMF chief, it seems clear, was trying to create the proper backdrop–and pretext–for rolling over Russia’s multibillion-dollar debt to the IMF. That is probably because the alternative, a Russian default, could take Mr. Camdessus down with it.
FOREIGN POLICY: RUSSIA BARRELS INTO THE BALKANS
Despite an apparent capitulation by Belgrade and the finalization of a Kosovo peace settlement on June 3, Russia and the West continued this past fortnight to clash over policy in the Balkans. The key development was undoubtedly Russia’s surprise deployment on June 11-12 of some 200 paratroopers to the Slatina airport outside of Kosovo’s capital city. The move, in which Russian troops beat NATO peacekeepers into Kosovo, stunned the West and greatly complicated the already formidable challenges facing the alliance in the devastated province. Not surprisingly, the Russian move also re-ignited tensions between Moscow and the West, and prompted yet another series of tortuous negotiations aimed at resolving differences between the two sides. As the fortnight concluded, the Russian and U.S. defense and foreign ministers were meeting in Helsinki, Finland. The two sides hoped to finalize an agreement which would set out the conditions under which Russian forces could participate in the NATO peacekeeping mission.
MILITARY HARDLINERS ON THE ASCENT?
Aside from its direct impact on the Kosovo peace mission, the surprise deployment of Russian troops to Kosovo raised a number of disturbing questions in other areas as well. One involved responsibility for the deployment order itself. There was considerable speculation in the West and in Moscow that hardline Russian generals had been behind the move–possibly without full authorization by the Kremlin. The government’s seeming confusion was evident in statements made by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who publicly assured the West that the troop deployment to Kosovo had been a mistake and that Moscow would quickly withdraw the troops. That withdrawal never occurred, and Ivanov was later left to explain why his ministry had been ignorant of the deployment order.
Spokesmen for the government and for President Boris Yeltsin, meanwhile, appeared to never explain fully whether Yeltsin had in fact directly authorized the troop deployment. They said that the president had approved contingency planning developed by the military for a move by Russian troops into Kosovo, but suggested that the precise “timing” of the troop deployment had been left up to Russian generals. Nonetheless, Yeltsin appeared anxious to embrace the Kosovo deployment, which had been greeted with enthusiasm in Moscow. The Russian president quickly promoted the man in charge of the small Russian contingent in Kosovo–Viktor Zavarzin–to the rank of colonel general. Zavarzin, who until the start of the air campaign against Yugoslavia had served as Russia’s representative to NATO, is reported to have been among the small group of Russian generals involved in the decision to send troops to Kosovo.
Whatever their actual connection to the appearance of Russian paratroopers in Kosovo, several top Russian generals were anything but shy in expressing their opinions about NATO’s Kosovo peace mission–either before or after the surprise troop deployment. Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, Defense Ministry chief for contacts with foreign military organizations and a notorious hardline critic of NATO, had publicly fulminated against the Kosovo peace agreement negotiated with the West by former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Ivashov and others in Moscow characterized the agreement as a sellout of Russian and Yugoslav interests, and made no secret of their hope to alter the terms of the agreement during its implementation in Kosovo.
Ivashov was most critical of Chernomyrdin’s assent to a leading role for NATO in the Kosovo security force, and reasserted Moscow’s demand that Russian troops in Kosovo serve outside of the alliance’s integrated command structure. He apparently also was frustrated by talks in Moscow between Russia and the United States which followed Belgrade’s agreement to the Kosovo peace plan. Ivashov ultimately accused U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott of seeking to confine Moscow to a secondary role in the Kosovo peace force. He suggested that Talbott also intended to string out the talks deliberately so as to let NATO peacekeepers establish themselves on the ground in Kosovo. The surprise Russian deployment to Kosovo, therefore, was aimed at preempting NATO by establishing a Russian presence in the province. Ivashov and other Russian leaders clearly hoped that this presence would compel NATO to give Moscow what it really wanted: a sector of its own in Kosovo under Russian command.
BALKANS PEACE IMPERILED
The consequences of the Russian move into Kosovo remain unclear at the moment. On the eve of a G-7 summit in Germany at which financial assistance to Russia was on the agenda, the Russian move raised new doubts about President Boris Yeltsin grip on power, not to mention his and Russia’s reliability as an international partner. Moscow’s actions also reawakened concerns among pro-Western government throughout Central Europe and the Balkans. Intense pressure by Russia on Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania to permit Russian overflights of their territories–for the transport of troops to Kosovo–suggested to many that Moscow was trying to establish a significant military presence in the Balkans. The crudeness of the Russian gambit in Kosovo also dampened satisfaction over what had been thought to be the end of the Kosovo conflict, and suggested that the reestablishment of peace and some prosperity in the Balkans could prove even more difficult than had already been expected. The Russian move, finally, raised the specter of increasing collusion between Moscow and Belgrade, a concomitant strengthening of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s political position, and a possible partition of Kosovo.