RUSSIAN POLITICS: PRIME MINISTERS EVERYWHERE Most of the political news in Russia this past fortnight involved the activities of former prime ministers–hardly a surprise, given the degree to which they’ve been proliferating. The second-most-recent ex-premier, Yevgeny Primakov, finally took a step back onto the political stage. He announced that he would join the newly forged coalition between Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s movement, Fatherland, on the one hand, and, on the other, All Russia, the bloc made up of powerful regional leaders. Primakov said he would lead Fatherland-All Russia’s list of candidates for the December parliamentary vote. While his poll numbers continue to tower above all other Russian politicians, Primakov said he had not yet made up his mind about running for president. But he held forth like a head-of-state wannabe, calling for the restoration of the vice presidency and the transfer of some of the Russian president’s immense powers to the prime minister and the parliament.
Primakov’s proposals appeared to be aimed largely at convincing his new coalition partner to hold his presidential ambitions in check for a few more years. If so, the demarche apparently worked: Just days later, the ambitious Moscow mayor stated for the first time that he would support a Primakov presidential bid, should the former spymaster and foreign minister decide to run. With that concession, the leadership issue within Fatherland-All Russia seemed resolved, and the coalition stood poised to become an unstoppable force.
Meanwhile, three other former prime ministers failed to agree on forming a center-right coalition to challenge the Primakov-Luzhkov juggernaut. Sergei Stepashin, Sergei Kirienko and Viktor Chernomyrdin–along with a bevy of erstwhile “young reformers,” including Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov–were involved in the negotiations to hammer out a united front. The effort ultimately fizzled, apparently because Chernomyrdin and Vladimir Ryzhkov, the young head of the State Duma faction of Chernomyrdin’s Russia is Our Home, simply could not swallow working with the likes of Gaidar. But perhaps more devastating to the young reformers than losing the support of Chernomyrdin’s rich friends among the energy barons was the loss of Stepashin, whose popularity rating had risen to second place, behind Primakov, after being fired by Yeltsin in early August. The cruelest blow of all to the young reformers came when Stepashin decided to cast his lot with their liberal nemesis–Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, was stuck with the problem of turning Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s latest heir apparent, into a viable candidate–a difficult task given that most Russians could probably still not pick the former KGB spy out of a line-up. According to one reported Kremlin contingency plan, Yeltsin would retire early–sometime this autumn–which would make Putin head of state for three months and leave the Primakov-Luzhkov tandem unprepared for the elections which would follow three months later. Yet rumors also persisted that the Kremlin was still considering canceling the presidential vote and, according to one version, replacing Putin with the ultimate Iron Fist–Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed. Whatever the case, Putin’s mettle was immediately put to the test in the ongoing war against Chechnya-based Islamist insurgents, who seized villages in the neighboring republic of Dagestan earlier this month.
RUSSIA’S ECONOMY: THE GOOD NEWS AND THE BAD Amid this latest bout of political uncertainty, some of the more congenitally optimistic among Russia watchers began to see signs of hope for the Russian economy. According to them, the August 1998 financial collapse had weeded out the corrupt banks which had been living off speculation and subsidies, and the weak ruble had forced import substitution and a concomitant revival of domestic industry. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) positively gushed about Russia’s new successes in implementing economic reform.
There were other, more pessimistic–some would say more realistic–voices. The analysts of the Fitch IBCA rating agency wrote in mid-August that there is “little evidence that investment and export growth will emerge to sustain the current recovery once the scope for import substitution has been exhausted.” The agency estimated that as much as US$136 billion in capital, equivalent to 50 percent of the gross domestic product, had exited Russia between 1993 and 1998. As if to underscore the point, the “New York Times” revealed that U.S. and British law enforcement were investigating the alleged laundering of more than US$4 billion from Russia through the Bank of New York between October 1998 and March of this year. The origins of the laundered money, apparently, were varied. They may have included funds siphoned out by major Russian banks, US$200 million in IMF credits to Russia, and the hard-earned cash of Semyon Mogilevich, a Russian mafia boss.
MOSCOW AND THE WEST: IS THE BELLICOSITY BACK? Following a brief period in which Russian political and foreign policy officials appeared to be accenting their desire to mend fences with the West, the past fortnight appeared to witness a return to a more confrontational policy by Moscow. The shift, which may have been related to the latest change of prime ministers, manifested itself in stepped up criticism by Moscow of NATO efforts to manage the peace in Kosovo. Simultaneously, Russian-U.S. arms control efforts appeared to stumble after a contentious session of negotiations in the Russian capital, while the Kremlin used a Russian-Chinese summit meeting in Bishkek to renew its criticism of the United States for allegedly trying to dominate world politics. Relations between Russia and Japan, meanwhile, appeared to be going nowhere fast. Despite some positive rhetoric out of Moscow, recent talks between the two sides revealed continuing deep divisions over the Kuril Islands territorial dispute as well as over U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation.
Moscow’s newly rediscovered pugnaciousness was encapsulated in remarks made by President Boris Yeltsin on the eve of his talks in Bishkek with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The Russian leader, who was apparently enjoying a rare bout of good health, spoke to reporters of his fitness and of his readiness to do battle with “Westernizers.” The odd reference–nothing new for Yeltsin–may in fact have been directed at pro-market political leaders in Moscow. But Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov thankfully provided yet another in the endless series of “clarifications” that have been required to make sense of Yeltsin’s remarks. He told reporters that the comment should be interpreted as criticism of certain states (read: the United States and NATO) for their efforts to dominate world politics. Moscow, he indicated, intended to continue its unending battle for a world order based on “multipolarity.” That is, a world relieved of U.S. domination in which political influence is diffused among a number of regional powers, Russia and China included.
Remarks of that sort set for the tone for the Yeltsin-Jiang talks, which were described as a Chinese-Russian “summit” in Moscow and which took place on the margins of a broader summit meeting of Russia, China, and three Central Asian states. The Russian and Chinese leaders used the occasion to underscore their intention to further enhance both Russian-Chinese bilateral cooperation and their joint actions on the international stage. The talks in Bishkek came, moreover, as a separate series of Russian-Chinese consultations took place in China itself. They were aimed at promoting trade between the two countries and, especially, at boosting already healthy Russian arms sales to Beijing. The two sides also restated their joint opposition to U.S. plans to deploy a national missile defense system and to parallel efforts by Washington and Tokyo to develop a theater missile defense system in Asia.
RUSSIA AND JAPAN DEADLOCKED; START STYMIED The increasing coziness between Moscow and Beijing appeared to be yet another factor in the loss of diplomatic momentum between Russia and Japan. Although Moscow proclaimed its readiness to launch preparations for a long overdue Russo-Japanese summit meeting later this year–an event much sought by Tokyo–the Kremlin still refused to set a date for the meeting. In the meanwhile, the two sides appeared to be stalemated by their inability to resolve the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. Moscow continued to push for the signing of a Russo-Japanese peace treaty by the year 2000, but with the provision that the accord would put off consideration of the territorial dispute until a later date. Japan continued to insist on diplomatic formulations which would make the signing of the peace treaty dependent upon a return of the four south islands to Tokyo. The differences between Moscow and Tokyo on these issues were only compounded by the rising tensions between the two countries over U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation.
Relations between Russia and the West were likewise frayed by differences over policy in the Balkans. Moscow continued to criticize the West for its refusal to grant reconstruction aid to Serbia and insisted that it would find a way to assist Belgrade regardless of Western policy. Russian political and military leaders also flayed NATO for what Moscow charged was the alliance’s unwillingness to rein in the Kosovo Liberation Army. That dialogue came amid continuing anti-Russian protests by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and a standoff between Russian troops and Albanian demonstrators near the city of Orahovac. The protesters oppose the replacement of Dutch and German peacekeepers in Orahovac by a Russian contingent. More generally, meanwhile, Russia showed no signs of moving to resuscitate cooperation with NATO. Russian officials continued to insist that joint efforts between the two sides would extend only to the Kosovo mission.
Acrimony was likewise evident following three days of Russian-U.S. arms control talks that took place in Moscow in mid-August. A terse statement released at the close of the talks suggested that the two sides had made little or no progress either on a possible START III accord or on amendments to the 1972 ABM treaty. Despite earlier signals suggesting some new Russian flexibility on the ABM changes, Russian negotiators in Moscow said that they saw no way in which the treaty could be altered to permit the United States to deploy a limited national missile defense system. One member of the Russian delegation, the hawkish Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, returned to Moscow’s old rhetoric on the issue in warning that any American effort to alter the ABM treaty would “destroy the entire process” of nuclear arms control.