Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 5

Another unseemly round of political infighting erupted in Russia over the past fortnight as the contest between the country’s president and prime minister increased in intensity. One victim of that inglorious battle was CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky. His abrupt dismissal by President Boris Yeltsin spilled beyond Russia’s borders, shocking CIS leaders and provoking new complaints over Russia’s heavy-handedness in dealing with the other CIS states. Moscow’s relations with Washington remained troubled, meanwhile, as the two countries faced off anew over Russian-Iranian defense cooperation and several other issues.


The fortnight was one filled with notable scandals and surprises, even by Russian standards. As February ended, President Boris Yeltsin summoned Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to the Kremlin for an unscheduled meeting, after which the head of state reiterated he had guaranteed Primakov his job as head of government until next year’s presidential elections. Film footage of Yeltsin’s statements, shot by the Kremlin press service, was shown on television, but with one obvious edit. A comment from Yeltsin stating his satisfaction with the government’s work was reportedly excised. This apparent attempt to put Primakov in a bad light corresponded with growing criticism of the cabinet in a variety of media–and particularly, but not solely, those controlled by tycoon Boris Berezovsky. The main targets of the attacks were Primakov’s deputies, Yuri Maslyukov and Gennady Kulik, who were blamed for failed economic policies as well as a failure to win concessions from the International Monetary Fund.

The two were also accused of large-scale corruption. Press reports charged that Maslyukov had, among other things, engineered illegal funding for his Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). Kulik, a member of the KPRF-allied Agrarian Party, was accused of channeling state largesse to SBS-Agro, a bank which has defaulted on thousands of depositors but on whose board of directors Kulik’s son sits. As is usually the case in Russia, where everybody has “kompromat”–compromising materials–on everybody else, the corruption charges were convincing while nevertheless smacking of orchestration. Indeed, this week, as the fortnight came to a close, several media reported that the Kremlin administration has been busy working up plans to “neutralize” Primakov. Some of those plans reportedly include the options of firing the cabinet or even the premier himself.

But in order for Yeltsin–or his inner circle, at any rate–to begin cutting Primakov’s ever-expanding fiefdom down to size, Yeltsin first had to clean his own house, and that meant dealing with CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky. As March began, Berezovsky ended a month-long silence which had started after police raided a number of his businesses, apparently with Primakov’s approval. Berezovsky held a press conference in which he again attacked Primakov for attempting a power grab. He also repeated his call for the KPRF to be banned and reiterated his charge that Russia’s special services are under communist control and need to be radically restructured. This final charge was apparently the last straw for Yeltsin: The special services, after all, like all of Russia’s “power structures,” answer directly to the president. What is more, Berezovsky had become a liability. The CIS official has been dogged by scandals and corruption charges, and has even been accused of having bought and blackmailed the First Family. Yeltsin had to dump that baggage before taking on a dangerous foe like Primakov. So the president relieved Berezovsky of his duties as CIS executive secretary (see below).

The first sign that the Kremlin’s anti-Primakov campaign was starting to go public came several days later, when Oleg Sysuev, first deputy head of the Kremlin administration, said that Primakov should be more critical of the government’s work. No members of the government, Sysuev added, should consider that their term in office is open-ended. Rumors quickly began circulating that the Kremlin might oust the cabinet and foist on Primakov a new one made up either of the “young reformers” from the Gaidar-Chubais camp, or perhaps one from the rival camp headed by Grigory Yavlinsky. On March 11 the Yabloko leader was unexpectedly called to the Kremlin for a meeting with Yeltsin. Yavlinsky said he merely discussed the general political and economic situation with the president, but was less than convincing.


Not surprisingly, perhaps, Russia’s domestic political problems reverberated beyond its borders. Boris Yeltsin shocked the CIS with his unilateral “decisions” on March 4 to remove Berezovsky from the post of CIS executive secretary and to designate Ivan Karatchenya as Berezovsky’s acting replacement. Yeltsin then ordered Russia’s Foreign Ministry to communicate his “decisions” to the other eleven presidents of CIS countries and ask them to “forward their written approval without delay.” Yeltsin subsequently telephoned the presidents in an effort to expedite the formalities. How many presidents actually signed the documents on the dotted line is not yet known.

Yeltsin’s move had very little to do with Berezovsky’s CIS activities. It was, rather, a direct consequence of Russia’s internal political infighting, and marked the ascendancy of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov (see above). It also pleased Russia’s Communists, who had recently inspired an appeal of the Duma to Yeltsin to remove Berezovsky from the CIS post. It signified the abrupt disgrace of a Kremlin favorite. And it seemed to demonstrate that the top CIS post had been turned into a Kremlin appanage, to be awarded or withdrawn at the Russian leadership’s discretion.

Karatchenya, a Belarusan bureaucrat, has a long record of obsequious service to two presidents–Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Karatchenya was the CIS executive secretary from 1992 to April 1998, at which point Berezovsky took over that post, with Karatchenya as his first deputy.

In issuing his decisions, Yeltsin–just like the Duma and Primakov who had prodded him–demonstrated a sovereign contempt for due process in general and for CIS procedures in particular. The CIS Executive Secretary is appointed and removed by the Council of Heads of State, the collegial body of presidents of the CIS countries, which takes decisions by consensus. Instead of respecting the rules of a multilateral organization–which is how Moscow tries to present the CIS to the world–Yeltsin simply fired Berezovsky and designated a successor, as if the CIS executive secretary were a functionary of the Russian state, and the Russian president’s jurisdiction extended over the CIS countries and overrode the authority of their presidents.

Berezovsky was hardly more popular in the capitals of the CIS countries than he was in Moscow. No president was prepared to stand up for this man, but his brusque removal by Russian fiat and the appointment of a Kremlin-picked successor shocked most of the CIS countries’ leaders. They reacted–as the Moscow daily “Izvestia” summed it up–“with a mixture of resentment and indignation” to the Kremlin’s arbitrariness and its sheer unpredictability.

Even Lukashenka–a confirmed detractor of Berezovsky–described the procedure as “hard to understand.” His displeasure was the more noteworthy for being expressed by a loyal ally of the Russian state and of Primakov personally. Presidents Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine and Petru Lucinschi of Moldova seemed–each for his own tactical reasons–to be the only ones to accept the fait accompli with minimal fuss. Kuchma badly needs Yeltsin’s blessing for reelection as president of Ukraine this year. He discreetly omitted to mention that he had officially proposed Berezovsky for the top CIS post at Yeltsin’s behest only eleven months ago. Lucinschi, the ultimate pragmatist, reminded Yeltsin that there are “far more pressing problems in the CIS than personnel changes”–preeminently the need to remove impediments to trade.


Presidents Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, Haidar Aliev of Azerbaijan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan made no attempt to downplay their indignation. Shevardnadze was the only head of a CIS state to have established a friendly personal rapport with Berezovsky, hoping that the latter could offset Primakov’s and the Russian Foreign Ministry’s pro-Abkhaz tilt. That investment was now nullified: “Berezovsky was in Tbilisi only three days ago and discussed the future of the CIS with me. If he had to be removed, I would not have wasted my time. This [procedure] only underscores the need for reforms in the CIS.” More pessimistically, Shevardnadze’s adviser on international law, Levan Aleksidze, concluded that the Kremlin’s procedure had already “dealt a setback to reforms in the CIS.”

In a follow-up statement, Shevardnadze announced his intention to propose a representative of Georgia, or of some country other than Russia, for appointment as CIS Executive Secretary on a consensus basis. But he predicted that Russia would “block any candidate not nominated by Moscow.” Shevardnadze indicated in passing that Russian intelligence services had recently eavesdropped on his office telephones. He described Moscow’s conduct in the CIS as “reminiscent of the style and working methods of the CPSU Central Committee.”

No less damaging was Shevardnadze’s challenge to the Kremlin’s version about Yeltsin informing the other presidents by telephone about the CIS shakeup. Shevardnadze told the Georgian press that the phone call to him had been made not by Yeltsin, but “by Yeltsin’s security people and his antechamber people.” Shevardnadze described such a procedure as “insulting,” and the communication from staffers to a president as “not warranting a reply.” The disclosure raised the possibility that Yeltsin either administered a supplementary snub to certain presidents, or was simply not in a physical condition to converse with all of his eleven counterparts.


The Azerbaijani president similarly interpreted the event as a throwback to Soviet practices, but demonstrated unshakable self-confidence even as he expressed his concern to local journalists. He poured sarcasm on Yeltsin and Primakov: “Somebody fired the CIS executive secretary, says Moscow TV. Somebody is warming over in his head the idea of restoring the USSR. They are again letting themselves be seduced by the ambition to give orders and control us from a center. But the bricks have scattered and there is no gluing them back together again. The CIS can not be turned into an appendage of any country. No sovereign state would agree to this. The time of imperial ambitions is gone. There is no way back for Azerbaijan. The sooner the aspirants to a new USSR understand this reality, the better for them.”

Armenian President Robert Kocharian by contrast declared his support for the Kremlin’s decision and advised the other presidents aloud that “it would be wrong to fail to support the Russian president.”


Uzbek President Islam Karimov punched another hole in the Kremlin’s consensus-seeking pretenses. Having only recently rejected Berezovsky’s plans to centralize the CIS, Karimov now condemned Yeltsin’s violation of CIS collegial prerogatives as an “intolerable precedent.” “I told Boris Yeltsin that the CIS has a charter and procedural rules, and these must be respected,” Karimov informed local media in recounting the telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart. Karimov even suggested that “it was not Yeltsin who made that decision, it was Berezovsky’s enemies.” If this was intended as an excuse for the Russian president, such an excuse is of dubious value because it implies that Yeltsin is no longer in complete control in the Kremlin.

In Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbaev maintained a resentful silence, it was Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbaev and the heads of the international affairs commissions of the bicameral parliament who spoke out. Senate commission chairman Zhabaihan Abdildin went so far as to remind Moscow that “the CIS is not a landed estate of Russia.” Even small and impoverished Kyrgyzstan seemed to find a means of protest in announcing a “temporary” moratorium on its contribution to the CIS budget. That budget, meager in the first place, supports the CIS joint bodies in Moscow and Minsk. Some member countries were already in arrears. The recent financial crisis has aggravated the problem. Kyrgyzstan has become the first country to officially suspend payments to that budget, which seems to be unraveling bit by bit.


Relations between Moscow and Washington were similarly troubled in recent weeks, as the two countries continued to clash in particular on a host of arms proliferation issues. Tensions in this area were exacerbated by congressional criticism of some aspects of the Clinton administration’s policies toward Russia. The effects of both of these developments are likely to further constrain Washington’s range of maneuver in dealing with Moscow. They also threaten current U.S. assistance programs to Russia, and probably make unlikely any real short-term easing of broader tensions between the two countries.

The long-simmering conflict between Russia and the United States over the leakage of sensitive Russian military technologies to Iran broke into a boil again on February 25. Russian government officials reacted angrily on that day to a decision by the Clinton administration to implement sanctions–threatened earlier–against ten Russian institutes accused of contributing to Iranian missile and nuclear development programs. The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized Washington for resorting to the “language of sanctions and pressure,” and also for attempting “to extend U.S. legislation to foreign countries.” Moscow has long complained of U.S. efforts to penalize third countries for their dealings with countries deemed by Washington to be rogue states. Russia’s education minister, meanwhile, repeated another now standard denunciation of U.S. sanctions over Russian-Iranian cooperation. He said that the sanctions are in fact part of a broader effort by Washington to keep advanced Russian technologies off the international market.

There were, however, faint indications in Moscow that at least some Russian officials and observers may recognize that the U.S. charges have some merit. First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov, who heads a government commission which oversees Russia’s military and technical cooperation with foreign countries, said that proliferation issues were indeed of importance and that Moscow and Washington needed to work together to tighten export controls over dual-use and sensitive military technologies. A leading Russian military journalist was blunter. Pavel Felgengauer wrote on February 25 that growing mismanagement and corruption in Russia’s arms export control system have given interested foreign parties considerable access to Russia’s vast defense industrial complex. That conclusion mirrors allegations by the Clinton administration that federal control in Russia over sensitive arms exports appears to have eroded over the past six to eight months.


Amid the charges and countercharges between Washington and Moscow over Russian-Iranian cooperation, the U.S. Congress’s General Accounting Office (GAO) released a study accusing the Energy Department of mismanaging two U.S. assistance programs aimed at stopping the proliferation of Russian military technologies and know-how. The GAO study concluded that the programs in question had wasted millions of dollars targeted at cash-strapped Russian nuclear scientists and institutes. The study also charged that U.S. aid funds may have gone to scientists who continue to work on Russian chemical, biological or nuclear weapons development programs, and possibly also to specialists or institutes that have provided expertise to third countries. U.S. officials connected to the aid programs admitted to some mismanagement, but argued that the programs had adequately the served broader U.S. goal of keeping impoverished Russian scientists from selling their services to foreign governments.

The controversy over U.S. aid to Russia came as Pentagon officials continued to push for greater Russian-U.S. cooperation in overcoming potential military threats posed by the so-called Y2K computer problem. With that goal in mind, a U.S. Defense Department delegation traveled to Moscow for several days of talks with Russian Defense Ministry officials. A member of the U.S. delegation said on March 1 that the Moscow talks had revealed a markedly increased readiness by Russian defense officials to work with foreign experts on the Y2K problem. But he admitted that the U.S. delegation had not been given access to military facilities in Moscow as had been hoped. He also said that the talks had provided the U.S. side with no real indication of how much progress Moscow has actually made in dealing with the millennium bug. In addition, the two sides apparently reached no final decision on a U.S. proposal that calls for American and Russian specialists to man a joint, early warning launch center beginning in December of this year.

Moscow and Washington clashed on yet another front when Clinton administration officials expressed concern on March 10 over signs of growing anti-Semitism in Russia. A government spokesmen indicated that U.S. Vice President Al Gore intends to raise the issue when he meets in late March with Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. The White House focus on the anti-Semitism issue reportedly followed a letter from several congressional leaders. They called on Gore to warn Primakov that the United States will reduce assistance to Russia unless action is taken to rein in “fascist extremism” in Russia.


Meanwhile, Russia’s negotiations with the IMF continued their roller-coaster-like course. Michel Camdessus dashed hopes for an agreement by denouncing Russia’s 1999 budget as unrealistic, after which Maslyukov accused the fund managing director of putting “indecent” pressure on Russia. Hopes revived after Maslyukov was sent off to Indonesia. Former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was sent to Washington to smooth things over with Camdessus and U.S. Vice President Albert Gore prior to Primakov’s trip there, planned for the third week of March. Many observes believe the IMF will relent, given the damage a Russian default would do to its reputation, not to mention the fears among G-7 leaders over the potential political fallout. Indeed, former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko said Camdessus’ tough talk was probably just covering fire prior to an agreement to restructure Russia’s debts. In any case, with billions in debt payments looming, Russia, as Chernomyrdin noted, is running short on time.