Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 10


President Boris Yeltsin’s dismissal of Yevgeny Primakov on May 12 was hardly a bolt out of the blue. For weeks–even months–Russia’s media had been predicting that the former spymaster would be removed as cabinet head. Some Kremlin sources had even been quoted as saying that a kind of Kremlin “emergency committee” had been set up to deal with the Primakov problem. The committee, reportedly, was composed of what many are calling the “collective Yeltsin”–that is, the group of insiders which includes, among others, the president’s daughter Tatyana, former Kremlin chief of staff and presidential ghostwriter Valentin Yumashev, the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Sibneft oil company chief Roman Abramovich, current presidential administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin, and privatization architect Anatoly Chubais.

Primakov was fired just before the State Duma was set to consider impeaching Yeltsin. According to some, the Kremlin’s timing was dictated by practical matters. It wanted to be able to argue that Primakov’s replacement, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin, had been named acting premier prior to the Duma’s impeachment vote. This was just in case Russia’s Supreme and Constitutional Courts were asked to decide which constitutional prerogative takes precedence: the president’s right to dismiss the Duma if it rejects his prime ministerial candidate three times, or the Duma’s constitutional immunity from dispersal once it votes to impeach. The Kremlin’s thinking, apparently, was that the courts would decide in favor of whichever had acted first.

According to another version, Yeltsin’s decision was triggered by a meeting between Primakov and State Duma faction leaders, when Primakov neglected to say that he would resign if one or more articles of impeachment were passed. Whether this last version is true or not is probably known only to the members of the Kremlin “emergency committee” cited above; they, as a rule, do not discuss such things publicly.

The real reasons for Primakov’s sacking, of course, were far deeper. As newspapers noted, the new Russian elite which had emerged during–and thanks to–Yeltsin’s reign simply could not tolerate the possible return to power of Gorbachev-era officialdom, of which Primakov was the embodiment. Indeed, the tycoons, already weakened by last August’s default, must have seen the police raids earlier this year on businesses controlled by Berezovsky, reportedly given a green light by Primakov, as a threat to their existence as a class. As happened in 1996, when the communists appeared poised to defeat Boris Yeltsin in presidential elections, Primakov’s growing power and popularity provided a common rallying point for the fractious business barons and their Kremlin allies.


While some analysts predicted that Primakov’s ouster would spark political instability and even mass protests, nothing of the kind happened. Although Primakov’s approval rating was the highest among Russia’s politicians (and Yeltsin’s fluctuates between 2 and 3 percent), this hardly represented any real depth of feeling. It is hard to imagine Russians going onto the streets on behalf of any of their politicians, whom they largely hold in contempt.

This lack of grassroots political sentiment also helps explain why the communist-initiated impeachment failed in the Duma. Most ordinary citizens undoubtedly saw it for what it was–not a groundswell of popular sentiment, but a propaganda exercise which most of the opposition leaders undoubtedly wanted to fail. The communists and their allies had to know that Yeltsin, in response to impeachment, would have found a way to dissolve the Duma. They could not have wanted to risk losing their perks and privileges–cars, secretaries, faxes, aides, “understandings” with rich lobbyists and immunity from criminal prosecution–to pass an initiative which certainly would have been overturned by the Constitutional Court. Such considerations (along, reportedly, with various carrots and sticks), also explain why Sergei Stepashin’s candidacy breezed through the Duma.

But if Stepashin had an easy time this week with the lower house of parliament, he appeared to be getting off on the wrong foot with the Kremlin. The new prime minister let it slip that he planned to ask Aleksandr Zhukov, head of the Duma’s budget committee, to join the cabinet as first deputy prime minister in charge of economic policy. The problem, however, was that Nikolai Aksenenko, the Russian railroads minister who was appointed first deputy prime minister last week, claimed he already had the job. Aksenenko, while little known to the public or even to the Moscow political elite, is reportedly a friend of the first family and a Berezovsky protege. Zhukov, on the other hand, is said to be in Anatoly Chubais’ orbit.

Thus the status quo seems to have been restored. The tycoons are at each other’s throats.


Despite an intensification of diplomatic maneuvering by Russia and the West, the past fortnight failed to produce a substantive breakthrough in the effort to resolve the conflict in Kosovo. This latest stage of diplomacy began on May 6, when Russia and the Group of Seven (G-7) leading industrial nations produced a framework Kosovo peace plan during a meeting in Bonn, Germany. Russia’s assent to the plan appeared to mark a successful conclusion to a month-long effort by the NATO nations aimed at re-engaging Moscow in the Kosovo peace negotiations.

The May 6 meeting appeared also to formalize Russia’s support for a package of nonnegotiable demands which the Western alliance had presented to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic as the price for halting NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia. Those demands include the withdrawal of the 40,000-strong Serb force in Kosovo, the return of the nearly 800,000 ethnic Albanians who have been driven from the war-torn province and the deployment in Kosovo of a robust international military force with NATO at its core. Western leaders hoped to make those principles–that is, the Russian-G-7 statement–the basis of a UN resolution setting out the contours of a Kosovo peace deal.

The wording of a joint statement released on May 6 by Russia and the G-7 countries was deliberately vague on several key points, however, and there has been little evidence since then that the two sides have narrowed their differences in those areas. The most important point of disagreement involves the composition and status of the international security force which is to be deployed in a postsettlement Kosovo. Rather than a robust, NATO-led military contingent, Moscow and Belgrade have continued to call for a lightly armed police or civilian force composed of troops from countries not participating in the current NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia. Russia and the West have also failed to resolve their differences over the timing and the scope of the Serb military withdrawal from Kosovo.


Indeed, the differences between Russia and the West appeared to deepen anew almost immediately after the May 6 meeting in Bonn when, on the evening of May 7, NATO mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. That event reshaped the international political landscape around the Kosovo issue. China, like Russia a permanent member of the UN Security Council, suddenly became a new and volatile factor in the effort to broker a Kosovo peace deal. Russia and China, moreover, each of which has long opposed plans to broaden NATO’s military mission, began to work more closely together on Kosovo.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Chernomyrdin departed on an unplanned trip to Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders. Those consultations appeared to produce an agreement between the two countries that NATO must halt its air campaign against Yugoslavia as a precondition for political talks aimed at ending the conflict. Remarks to that effect by Chernomyrdin and other top Russian officials raised some questions as to whether Moscow had abandoned the principles elaborated in the May 6 agreement with the G-7 countries. Although Chernomyrdin has said on several occasions since then that the Russia-G-7 statement remains the basis for current negotiations on Kosovo, he has nevertheless also continued to insist on a NATO bombing halt. China, meanwhile, has warned that it will not permit discussion of a Kosovo peace deal in the UN Security Council until NATO halts the bombing campaign.


Russia and the West appeared unable to resolve their differences on these and related issues during an intensive series of negotiations which took place between May 18 and May 20. Those negotiations included marathon talks between Chernomyrdin and both U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari in Helsinki and Moscow. Ahtisaari has been named the European Union’s special envoy for Kosovo and could emerge, along with Chernomyrdin, as a key player in efforts to end the Balkans conflict. Senior diplomats from Russia and the G-7 countries, meanwhile, also failed to bridge their differences during talks in Bonn on May 19-20. In the midst of these negotiations Chernomyrdin headed to Belgrade for a meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on May 19. There was no evidence of a breakthrough.

Despite the apparent failure of these most recent negotiations, there has been increasing pressure on all parties concerned to reach a settlement of the Balkans crisis. As civilian death tolls have risen in Yugoslavia–and amid a series of embarrassing accidental bombings by NATO forces in that country–some members of the Western alliance have pressed with growing insistence for at least a pause in the NATO air campaign. Simultaneous indications of growing public unrest in Yugoslavia over the course chosen by Milosevic appear to be driving Belgrade to the negotiating table as well. What remains lacking is a formula for peace that will satisfy all parties involved in the increasingly complex diplomatic maneuvering over Kosovo.


Moscow’s loyal allies, Presidents Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus and Imomali Rahmonov of Tajikistan, found themselves under some pressure this fortnight to grapple with the problem of their lack of democratic legitimacy. In their respective satrapies, at opposite ends of the former Soviet Union, these two presidents face challenges to submit to the test of election by popular vote. Lukashenka seeks to delay that test at all cost, Rahmonov, in contrast, to precipitate a farcical electoral exercise.


Lukashenka’s presidential mandate expires this July under the 1994 constitution which is recognized by the Belarusan opposition and by the Western and the new democracies. Lukashenka imposed another constitution through the “velvet coup” of 1996, prolonging his presidential mandate until 2001. Two months ago, the national-democratic opposition challenged Lukashenka to run for reelection in May 1999 in accordance with the pre-coup constitution. The leadership of the forcibly dissolved parliament–which enjoys continuing recognition in the democratic world–scheduled the election for May 16. It also authorized the balloting for the May 6-16 period, in accordance with the pre-1996 electoral law which permits balloting under certain circumstances during a ten-day period ahead of the official date of the election. The legitimate parliamentary leadership appointed a central electoral commission (CEC) under Viktar Hanchar as chairman and Barys Hyunter as secretary. This CEC, in turn, created hundreds of local commissions across the country. Hanchar had been the chairman of the official CEC until 1996, at which point he opposed Lukashenka’s pseudo-referendum and was unlawfully dismissed by the president. The opposition’s effort, therefore, rested on a substantial measure of legal and even institutional continuity.

The opposition fielded two candidates: former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, who had broken with Lukashenka in 1996 and was jailed in March 1999 after announcing his candidacy in this race; and Popular Front leader Zyanon Paznyak, an emigre since 1996, who was prevented from returning for this election. The exercise was mainly symbolic, aiming to demonstrate that a substantial body of the citizenry opposes Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule and sympathizes with the goals of national-democratic opposition.

Thousands of volunteers throughout the country were involved in the vote-collecting campaign. Operating door-to-door, mostly at night, they carried mobile ballot boxes directly to voters, giving them an opportunity to cast their ballots. A small number of improvised polling stations were set up in the back streets of Minsk and other cities on the final day of the voting, May 16. These procedures were inherently open to challenge on technical grounds; but such challenges hardly detracted from the legitimacy of the exercise as such and its political value. The opposition’s CEC issued daily turnout reports from all of Belarus’ six oblasts on the basis of the local electoral commissions’ reports. The authorities felt able to ignore the event, safe in the knowledge that they had barred the candidates from action and the opposition as a whole from the mass media.

The authorities also capitalized on Paznyak’s withdrawal from the race midway through the balloting. Apparently losing the hope of pulling ahead of Chyhir in the polls, the Popular Front leader suddenly denounced the entire election process as unlawful and improper and pilloried Chyhir and other opposition leaders as agents of Russia. Paznyak argued that Moscow had set out to create a pro-Russian opposition to Lukashenka and play off one against the other. If so, the Popular Front leader almost certainly fingered the wrong suspects and brought the opposition to the verge of a split. That prospect now threatens, in the first place, Paznyak’s Popular Front, a part of which has disavowed the leader’s actions.

On May 19, the opposition’s CEC issued final returns showing that 53 percent of all eligible voters had cast ballots. The final turnout figure was consistent with the daily turnout reports since May 6. Nevertheless, the CEC pronounced the election returns invalid for three reasons. First, pressure from the authorities made it impossible to carry out normal campaigning. Second, the candidates lacked direct contact with the electorate, while their organizations lacked access to the mass media and could not properly inform the public about their programs. Third, Paznyak, by withdrawing, left a single candidate in the race and confused the public with his attacks on the CEC’s work. Hanchar, furthermore, declined to announce the scores of the two opposition candidates. Such discretion seemed designed, first, to contain the danger of a disastrous split in opposition ranks, and second, to avoid a situation in which the opposition is seen as anointing a counter-president and heading for a situation of dual power.

Those self-imposed restraints notwithstanding, Hanchar and other opposition leaders justifiably pronounced the election a moral and political success. It punctured President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s claim to express a national consensus; it demonstrated that the opposition enjoys broad-based support; and it would enable the opposition to engage in talks with Lukashenka from a strong position, under the mediation of the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe.


Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov announced on May 19 that he has decided to conduct a presidential election by November 6 at the latest, a constitutional referendum during the course of 1999 and parliamentary elections by February 2000 at the latest, under an electoral law to be drafted by the present–his–parliament. Rahmonov urged the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) to go along with this agenda in the interest of pacification and national reconciliation. The president is already a declared candidate for reelection, and he has, since last year, headed an official party which he formed with an eye to the parliamentary elections.

The president’s electoral timetable lags by a full year behind the schedule envisaged in the 1997 inter-Tajik agreements which ended the civil war. The Contact Group of guarantor countries, the UN and the OSCE have repeatedly urged Tajikistan to prepare the conditions for holding a free and fair referendum and elections and to schedule those votes. The UN Security Council on May 15 again called on Tajikistan to do so. Rahmonov’s May 19 announcement seemed to react to those calls while ignoring their essence–the need to prepare the conditions for free and fair elections.

The president and his party have everything to gain from holding the elections as quickly as possible. The opposition parties have not yet been legalized. The existing constitutional setup excludes religious parties and thus the Islamic Revival Party, which is the main component of the UTO and in no sense a “fundamentalist” party. The mass media and communications systems are a virtual monopoly of the government. The 1997 agreement on power-sharing–under which the opposition was to receive 30 percent of central and local government posts–is still a long way from implementation at the central level and not implemented at local levels. The Internal Affairs and State Security Ministries–standard tools of intimidation and falsification in elections–are firmly in Rahmonov’s and his clan’s hands.

The Leninabad region–Tajikistan’s most populous and secularized, and whose interests differ from those of Rahmonov’s clientele–is also severely marginalized under present arrangements and subject to electoral manipulation. The holding of elections under such circumstances and under Rahmonov’s timetable would amount to a travesty. It would enable the government to rig the results almost at its discretion and continue its narrowly based rule. That situation would in turn perpetuate the government’s dependence on the support of Russian troops. Moscow would welcome the re-enthronement of a weak government prepared to guarantee an open-ended presence of the Russian forces in the country.