Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 5 Issue: 11


The dust has hardly settled from either the months-long battle to oust former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov or the State Duma’s attempt to impeach President Boris Yeltsin. Yet the victors in that first battle–the oligarchs who had been in eclipse since last August, along with their allies in the Kremlin–are already at each other’s throats. The spectacle is, as Julia Latynina of “Segodnya” newspaper graphically put it, like a group of bank robbers who begin to fight among themselves for the loot before reaching the bank’s doors.

The staffing of recently named Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin’s new cabinet served as the proximate cause for the latest political battle. Indeed, the process itself took on the characteristics of a farce. Stepashin announced that Aleksandr Zhukov, the head of the Duma’s budget committee, would be his first deputy prime minister in charge of macroeconomics. Simultaneously, Nikolai Aksenenko, the railways minister who had already been named one of Stepashin’s first deputies, announced that he would be running overall economic policy. Stepashin, forced to ditch Zhukov, then turned to Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov. He, in turn, was forced to resign after his request to maintain the finance minister’s post was rejected. The imbroglios over Zhukov and Zadornov made it clear that the Kremlin was micromanaging the selection of this cabinet in a way it had never done before.

Meanwhile, in a ministerial shake-up, MOST business empire founder Vladimir Gusinsky lost his government patron, Vladimir Bulgak, who had been deputy prime minister in charge of communications. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s ally, tax minister Georgy Boos, also lost his job. Not surprisingly, media connected to both men began pouring out rumors that a kind of palace coup had been carried out by a group made up of Yeltsin’s daughter and image adviser Tatyana Dyachenko, tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Sibneft oil chief Roman Abramovich, former Kremlin administration chief Valentin Yumashev, and current chief Aleksandr Voloshin. Aksenenko was reportedly their man inside the cabinet.

These reports were pushed most vigorously by the losers in the cabinet battle, but other media, with no clear connection to either side, painted a similar picture. The newspaper “Kommersant,” for example warned that this group of insiders–increasingly referred to as the “mini-Politburo,” the “home-made Politburo,” or simply “The Family”–was aiming to monopolize key state financial flows and contemplating various ways of staying in power after June 2000, the date of the next presidential vote. One of the most fascinating versions (versya) concerning The Family stated that Berezovsky, previously Russia’s leading oligarch, had been usurped by Sibneft’s Roman Abramovich during the Primakov interregnum, at a time when Berezovsky was busy fending off criminal investigations. Abramovich was also said to have cut a deal with Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s privatization architect and head of the United Energy Systems electricity monopoly, who is one of Berezovsky’s sworn enemies. This version was indirectly confirmed by the fact that the cabinet, now in its final form, includes various Chubais allies, including Viktor Khristenko, who was named finance minister.


While members of The Family seem bound to start turning their daggers on one another–it shall always be thus in Russian court politics–they are apparently united around at least one goal: to neutralize Yuri Luzhkov, the most dangerous competitor for the Kremlin post in next year’s vote.

The first indicator that Luzhkov was in the cross-hairs came from Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the erstwhile “opposition” ultranationalist, whose Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has become the Kremlin’s most trusted ally. (Zhirinovsky this week tried to thwart an attempt to question Aksenenko over his connection to alleged railway corruption. Aksenenko, in any case, simply didn’t show up.) In a “private” letter to Yeltsin which somehow got leaked to the Duma, Zhirinovsky urged that the post of Moscow mayor be “liquidated” and replaced by a federal “minister for Moscow affairs.”

Some Russian media, meanwhile, reported that the Kremlin was planning to cut off federal financial flows to Moscow and intended also to run former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko in the Moscow mayoral race. Kirienko would, in addition, reveal “kompromat” (compromising materials) against Luzhkov.

Luzhkov, for his part, did not deign to answer these threats directly, but warned that if members of Yeltsin’s administration take actions which “go beyond the framework of the constitution, we should do everything possible to oppose them.” Meanwhile the Moscow City Duma introduced a bill which would move up the Moscow mayoral race from June 2000 to this December, when parliamentary elections are to be held. Luzhkov apparently wants to ensure his return to the mayoral post should his presidential bid fail or be thwarted.


Government leaders in the West reacted with cautious optimism on June 3 to reports that Yugoslav authorities had accepted a peace plan carried to Belgrade by Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The two men, acting as special envoys for the European Union and Russia, respectively, had traveled to Belgrade the evening before in the wake of a marathon negotiating session in Bonn on June 1-2. The Bonn talks, which also included U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, had resolved several of the long-standing differences in the negotiating positions of Russia and the West. Ahtisaari’s visit to Belgrade marked the first time that a Western statesman had held direct negotiations with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic since the start of NATO’s bombing campaign in early March. The joint mission by Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin likewise marked the first time that the European Union, the United States and Russia had jointly confronted the Belgrade leadership with a series of demands for ending the Balkans conflict.


The June 2-3 mission to Belgrade marked the apparent close of at least one chapter of the Kosovo conflict–a torturous two-month period during which the Western powers accompanied ever-intensifying air strikes on Yugoslavia with an equally intensive diplomatic effort to win Russian acceptance of the key terms set down by NATO for an end to the Balkans conflict. That two-pronged Western effort was launched during the alliance’s fiftieth anniversary summit in Washington on April 23-24, and appeared to bear some fruit during a meeting between Russia and the Group of Seven (G-7) countries in Bonn on May 6. A joint statement approved on that occasion set the parameters for subsequent negotiations on Kosovo, and was intended also to serve as the basis for an eventual UN Security Council resolution officially supporting the alliance’s goals in Kosovo.

But the path ahead was anything but smooth. The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO on May 7 turned Beijing into a fierce opponent of Western efforts to impose a settlement on Yugoslavia. It appeared also to reanimate Russian hostility to NATO’s plans for the Balkans. In an ill-advised attempt to exploit the embassy bombing, Chernomyrdin traveled to Beijing on May 10. There, he added his voice to the hard line being advocated by Chinese leaders and, in demanding an immediate halt to the NATO bombing campaign, appeared to distance himself from the Russian-G-7 statement on Kosovo.

Russia and the West continued to clash, moreover, on several other key issues which had been addressed only vaguely in the Russian-G-7 statement. First and foremost among them was the status and composition of an international security force to be deployed in Kosovo as part of the peace settlement. Moscow joined Belgrade in resisting the West’s demand that the force be a robust one largely controlled by NATO. Moscow and Belgrade likewise continued to oppose Western demands for a total withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo. These and several related differences continued to dominate the intensive trilateral talks between Chernomyrdin, Ahtisaari and Talbott which took place right up until the joint June 2-3 mission to Belgrade.


The final two weeks of negotiations were conducted under increasingly pressured conditions. In the West, a growing conviction among some government leaders that the air strikes were at last achieving their goals was accompanied by calls from others for a pause in the air campaign. Belgrade, simultaneously, began sending out peace signals, albeit not under the terms demanded by NATO. In Moscow, the mood was often dark. There, Russian officials complained of U.S. intransigence and warned on several occasions that Moscow would withdraw from the negotiations altogether if NATO’s bombing campaign continued. There was also renewed criticism of what some in Moscow described as the West’s effort to turn Russia into an errand boy for NATO demands on Belgrade. Russia’s own domestic political infighting added to the difficulties faced by Chernomyrdin–a relative moderate–and to the ugliness of Russian commentary on NATO’s alleged designs in the Balkans.

None of these underlying tensions and divisions–in Russia, the West or in Yugoslavia–are likely to disappear in the wake of Ahtisaari’s and Chernomyrdin’s seemingly successful June 2-3 visit to Belgrade. Despite talk of a common position between Russia and the West, the two sides clearly failed to resolve all of their differences and must still work out myriad details of the peace settlement even in those areas where they achieved relative harmony. And those difficulties will undoubtedly pale in comparison to the problems that will arise as the Western alliance seeks to finalize–and then to implement–the peace deal with Belgrade. Even that difficult process, moreover, will have to wait until the West can verify that Belgrade has in fact capitulated fully and is prepared to meet all of the West’s demands.