Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 2

Russia’s political turmoil continued over the past fortnight, as President Boris Yeltsin’s enduring health problems precipitated what appeared to be conflict between the Kremlin and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. But the country’s domestic problems seemed in no way to discourage Russia’s political elite from seeking confrontation abroad. Russia and the United States continued to clash on a host of issues, notwithstanding a visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Tensions also rose between Moscow and Kyiv following the Russian Federation Council’s failure to ratify an important and long-negotiated Russian-Ukrainian interstate treaty.


Like many other fortnights in the recent history of Russia, the last one was dominated by the illness of the country’s head of state. Boris Yeltsin was hospitalized on January 17 with an acute bleeding gastric ulcer. His illness came on the heels of his recovery from his last health crisis–a bout of pneumonia which put him in the government’s Central Clinical Hospital (TsKB). late last year. But there was no heightened sense of crisis in the country as a result of Yeltsin’s latest malady. Russia has long been in a kind of permanent crisis, and its people have become accustomed to the fact that Yeltsin spends most of his time either at the TsKB or at the Barvikha sanatorium outside Moscow.

Some within Russia’s political elite, however, began openly expressing alarm at the effect Yeltsin’s infirmity was having on the country. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said that Russia “should have an active president” and was having “big problems” as a result of Yeltsin’s illness. Despite criticism from Kremlin officials for his statement, Luzhkov repeated it, adding that Yeltsin must himself reach a conclusion about the state of his health, and make a corresponding decision about his political future. Meanwhile, Sergei Karaganov, director of the Institute of Europe and a long-time ally of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, said that Yeltsin’s illness was accelerating centrifugal tendencies in the Russian Federation and that the president ought to step down. Karaganov suggested that an alliance between Primakov and Luzhkov could provide the basis for an “authoritarian modernizing regime” that could reverse the state’s fragmentation.

But perhaps the most surprising development was a proposal that Primakov floated to State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev. It envisioned a kind of “non-aggression pact” between the cabinet, the parliament and the Kremlin aimed at guaranteeing political stability in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections, set for December of this year and next year, respectively. In his plan, Primakov said that the president should refrain from using his constitutionally mandated powers to dissolve the State Duma and dismiss the cabinet, while the Duma should refrain from any actions which might provoke its dissolution–including its ongoing impeachment process against Yeltsin. Primakov also sent Seleznev a packet of draft laws, including one enumerating guarantees, privileges and benefits for ex-presidents. That last draft law stipulated lifetime membership for ex-presidents in the Federation Council, the parliament’s upper chamber, which would give Yeltsin immunity from criminal prosecution.


Primakov’s proposal received some backing from, among others, Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev and State Duma Vice Speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov. Others, ranging from Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky to radical Communist Duma deputy Viktor Ilyukhin, dismissed it out of hand. More important, the Kremlin–while trying to paper over the growing rift between Yeltsin and Primakov–was apparently caught off by the prime minister’s demarche. Yeltsin was reportedly outraged. The two men met at the TsKB on January 27. But, despite additional attempts by the Kremlin apparatus to smooth things over, it seemed that Primakov, by appearing to move in on Yeltsin’s coveted turf, had repeated the mistake of his predecessor, Viktor Chernomyrdin. According to “versions” put forward in the Russian press, Primakov’s political hide was saved only because Yeltsin feared that dismissing his constitutionally designated successor while he remained in the hospital would spark a crisis worse than last August’s financial meltdown. Nonetheless, rumors were rife in Moscow that Primakov might soon share Chernomyrdin’s fate.

What had observers scratching their heads was why Primakov, obviously no stranger to apparatus intrigues, behaved with such an apparent lack of caution, even if he does harbor strong presidential ambitions, as some observers believe. There was no clear answer to this puzzle. But, according to an unconfirmed report in a leading Moscow daily, Primakov last week received a visit from some of the country’s leading “oligarchs,” who, despite having been weakened by the financial collapse, remain a force. They reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s policies, and hinted that they could engineer its dismissal before the summer. Primakov, thus, floated his proposal as a way of guaranteeing that the cabinet would not be fired.

It is impossible to say whether or not this version is true. It is interesting to note, however, that CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch “credited” with engineering the ouster of many an official in the past, said this week he would support a presidential bid by Nikita Mikhalkov should the renowned actor-director decide to run. Berezovsky has reportedly tried to forge an alliance with Primakov, but has been rebuffed.


In the midst of this domestic political turmoil, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made her long-awaited visit to Moscow for talks with top Russian officials on January 25-26. But there was no evidence in the aftermath of the visit that Russia and the United States had managed to narrow their differences on a number of important international issues. That assessment seemed to hold despite the obvious efforts of both sides during Albright’s stay to highlight areas of continuing cooperation between Moscow and Washington. Albright, for example, applauded what she said was the willingness of the two governments “to speak in frankness and friendship with each other about the common problems we face.” Ivanov, in turn, told reporters that the “lack of agreement of our views on some issues must not be an obstacle to the development of our ‘partnerly’ relations.”

The two sides did reportedly manage during the talks to make some progress on the issue of how best to amend the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). treaty to reflect post Cold War realities. But the details of those talks were sparse. The two sides also reached an agreement which will increase the U.S. Defense Department’s monitoring of American satellite launches by Russian rockets in Kazakhstan. That move is aimed at preventing sensitive space technologies from being leaked to Iran or other third countries.

But those achievements were modest when compared to the deep divisions between the two countries which continued to be evident on such issues as the crises in Iraq and Kosovo, Russian-Iranian missile and nuclear cooperation, NATO’s planned enlargement, and recently announced U.S. plans to develop a missile defense system. Indeed, the differences between Moscow and Washington over the Iraq crisis were on display even during Albright’s stay. On January 25 the Russian Foreign Ministry sharply criticized an errant U.S. missile attack on the Iraqi city of Basra which resulted in civilian casualties. The Russian statement reflected Moscow’s repeated calls for the international community to come to the aid of Iraq’s civilian population. Moscow has used that same position more broadly to justify its demands for an easing of UN sanctions on Iraq.

Moscow’s criticism of the U.S. raid on Basra, moreover, came as Russian diplomats maneuvered at the UN to bury a new report compiled by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM). in charge of disarming Iraq. The 250-page document reportedly describes systematic efforts by Baghdad to obstruct UN disarmament efforts. According to a U.S. diplomat, the report demonstrates that there are still a number of unanswered questions with regard to Iraq’s weapons programs.

Russia’s UN ambassador rejected the report, however, arguing that UNSCOM had lost its credibility and that its documents should no longer be used as the basis for the Security Council’s work. The diplomatic skirmishing over the report reflected the broader battle between Russia and the United States over UNSCOM. Washington, by and large, supports the UN agency and wants to resume its work. Russia, conversely, blames UNSCOM for much of the tension in Iraq, and wants to dissolve the agency and move to a new and less intrusive system of weapons monitoring.


The chances for early ratification by Russia of the START II arms reduction treaty, already hurt by last month’s U.S. and British air attacks on Iraq, were dealt a further blow by the Clinton administration’s announcement that it would pursue the development of a U.S. missile defense system. Washington tried to reassure Moscow that, in allocating more money for missile defense, the United States does not intend to renounce the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM). treaty. But Washington’s call for amendments to the ABM treaty was met with universal disapproval in Russia, where politicians across the political spectrum view the treaty as the cornerstone of all subsequent nuclear limitation and reduction pacts.

Hopes for START II ratification also suffered a blow when Russian presidential hopeful Aleksandr Lebed said on January 21 that approval of the treaty would cause “irreparable damage” to Russia’s national security. The retired Russian general called for bypassing START II and proceeding straight to a reduction of nuclear weapons which would leave the Russian and U.S. arsenals at levels even lower than those that have generally been envisioned in a proposed follow-up START III accord. Lebed also expressed concern about the air and naval components of Russia’s strategic nuclear triad, and suggested that Russia and the United States should be able to apportion their warheads among their components as they saw fit.

The United States has shown no inclination to move on to more radical cuts in strategic arms until after START II is ratified. Lebed’s views reflect widespread concerns in Russia, however, and are likely to boost opposition to ratification of START II. With parliamentary elections and a presidential vote approaching, moreover, Lebed’s public pronouncements on the treaty issue are likely to further politicize discussions of it.


Relations between the two largest post-Soviet countries took a sudden turn for the worse on January 27. By an overwhelming margin of 115 to 15, with 9 abstentions, Russia’s Federation Council decided to postpone considering ratification of the Russian-Ukrainian interstate treaty. The document legalizes the post-Soviet territorial status-quo between the two countries. In the Federation Council, however, nationalist and irredentist arguments emotionalized the debate and appeared on the verge of prevailing. Moderates ultimately went along with a postponement as preferable to the alternatives, which are either outright rejection of the treaty or attaching conditions to its ratification.

A strange alliance of anticommunist nationalists and leftist nationalists thwarted the ratification on this occasion, pulling some moderates along and intimidating others into passivity. The debate is supposed to be resumed in a month’s time. Meanwhile, Russia is fast approaching its campaign for parliamentary elections, which will only increase the senators’ wariness about ratifying the treaty with Ukraine. Although many members of the Federation Council owe their seats to President Boris Yeltsin, few of them appeared amenable to the arguments of the executive branch in favor of ratification.


A product of years of arduous negotiations, the treaty was signed by Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma in Kyiv in May 1997. The Ukrainian parliament ratified the treaty in January 1998. The document enshrines Ukraine’s existing borders and territorial integrity. In particular, it amounts to official Russian recognition of Ukraine’s title to the Crimea. Mainly for that reason, Russia’s Duma had blocked ratification until December 25, 1998, when it voted to ratify the treaty. The tally was 244 in favor–slightly above the necessary minimum of 226–and 30 opposed. The remainder of the 450 deputies ducked the vote.

The treaty cleared the Duma thanks to the Communist Party’s sudden reversal. Gennady Zyuganov and his comrades now argue that the cause of “helping” Russians in Crimea and “reintegrating” Russia and Ukraine is more effectively pursued through friendly relations with the Ukrainian state. Apart from such strategic considerations, the Russian communists’ shift on this issue is more immediately intended to help Ukraine’s Red forces in the upcoming presidential election. The Ukrainian communists and socialists had urged the Russian communists to approve the treaty.


Leading the fight against the treaty in the Federation Council and in the political arena generally is Moscow mayor and presidential aspirant Yuri Luzhkov. He is seconded by Konstantin Zatulin, director of a government-sponsored institute for relations with CIS countries and leader of the ultranationalist Derzhava [Great Power] movement that is now allied to Luzhkov’s Otechestvo movement. Symptomatically, “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” which CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky controls, virtually campaigned against the treaty. Immediately prior to the Federation Council debate, that influential and reputedly liberal newspaper printed an article by Zatulin which detailed the case against ratifying the treaty with Ukraine. It followed that up with an editorial by its own chief editor, Vitaly Tretyakov, portraying Ukraine as a state hostile to Russia and Russian interests.

The Luzhkov-Zatulin position is: (1). that the 1954 transfer of Crimea from the Russian Federation to Ukraine (at that time the RSFSR and the Ukrainian SSR). was unlawful; (2). that Sevastopol was not included in that transfer; (3). that the present treaty would for the first time legalize those transfers, forfeiting Russia’s territorial “rights;” (4). that the treaty does not envisage machinery to protect the interests of Russians in Ukraine; (5). that ratification would enable Kyiv to evict Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from its Crimean bases, even to hand those bases over to the United States or Turkey; and (6). that ratification would ultimately “untie the hands” of Ukraine, allowing it to draw close to NATO and ultimately join it. The recurrent reference to untying Ukraine’s hands implies that Russia would lose the chance to raise territorial demands as a deterrent to Ukraine’s rapprochement with NATO.

Presaging trouble on the eve of the debate, Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev switched from supporting the treaty to fence-sitting. He began suggesting a postponement of the vote or consideration of certain conditions to ratification. Stroev’s conditions would focus on the status of Sevastopol and on the interests of Ukraine’s 12-million-strong ethnic Russian population. Leading opponents of the treaty had themselves implied that they would initiate conditions along these lines as a prerequisite for ratification.


Russia’s Foreign Ministry and other executive departments, abandoning their customary reserve, undertook an all-out effort to secure ratification. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, CIS Affairs Minister Boris Pastukhov and First Deputy Prime Minister Vadim Gustov spoke to the Federation Council and to the public, urging ratification of the existing text of the treaty. Their thesis–not unlike the communists’–holds that Russia’s strategic interests are pursued more effectively in cooperation with Ukraine, rather than against it; that Russia’s failure to ratify the treaty would trigger a Ukrainian refusal to ratify the signed agreements on the basing of the Russian fleet in Crimea; and that a ratified interstate treaty could create a legal basis for supporting grievances of Russians in Ukraine with regard to language use and other, mainly cultural issues. These arguments failed to carry the day. Following the vote, Kuchma paid tribute to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and to those members of his government who sought to secure passage of the treaty.

The outlook for the treaty does not look bright. Ratification with conditions along the lines suggested by Russian nationalist critics would be considered unacceptable in Ukraine and would virtually nullify the treaty’s value. Such a development would probably also meet with international concern. The U.S. embassy in Kyiv has lost no time voicing such concerns. Unless Russia’s executive branch and moderate Federation Council members manage to secure ratification of the existing document next month without amending it, the prospect for ratification will recede quite rapidly. Russia is embarking on its parliamentary election campaign, Ukraine is holding a presidential election this year as well, and Russia’s presidential election is scheduled to follow next year. These successive contests will probably politicize the debates on the treaty to an even greater degree than has already been the case. Failure in Moscow to ratify the treaty next month may well postpone the issue for two years, adding to the many uncertainties that already beset Russian-Ukrainian relations.