Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 7

The Fortnight in Review

It was an exceptionally eventful fortnight in Moscow, as Russian President Boris Yeltsin dismissed his cabinet and maneuvering began over the naming of a new government. The Russian capital also played host to a pair of high-level diplomatic events: a tripartite summit involving the leaders of Russia, France and Germany; and a visit by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Meanwhile, Moscow backed a UN arms embargo on Yugoslavia, but continued to maneuver on behalf of Belgrade in international deliberations over the Kosovo crisis.

Yeltsin Dismisses Entire Government

Russian President Boris Yeltsin startled the world on March 23 by dismissing his entire government, including Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Thanking the premier for his years of devoted service, Yeltsin observed that Chernomyrdin would now be free to concentrate on preparations for the 1999 parliamentary elections and the 2000 presidential elections. Also dismissed by special presidential decree were First Deputy Premier Anatoly Chubais and Russia’s hawkish Interior Minister, Anatoly Kulikov. On March 27, Yeltsin formally named the 35-year-old former Energy Minister, Sergei Kirienko, as his choice for prime minister and forwarded Kirienko’s candidacy to the State Duma for approval.

Yeltsin’s choice of the formidably bright but inexperienced Kirienko may symbolize the end of the nomenklatura’s grip on state power. Yeltsin is often described as retaining all the characteristics of the Communist Party regional boss he once was; Chernomyrdin showed many of the traits of the USSR gas minister he had once been. Like many of today’s tough young Russian entrepreneurs, Kirienko began his career in the Komsomol. But it was not long before he struck out on his own, setting up his own Garantia Bank in Nizhny Novgorod in 1994 and then chairing Russia’s third largest oil refinery company, the Nizhny-based Norsi Oil. Kirienko, who told a TV interviewer last week that his father was Jewish, his mother Russian, his name Ukrainian and his place of birth Abkhazia, could hardly be more different than the outgoing premier.

Initially, Yeltsin claimed he sacked the government to give a new impetus to economic reform. But it soon became clear that, while the old government was gone, Yeltsin did not have a new one to put in its place. It also transpired that many of the outgoing ministers stood a good chance of retaining their posts in the new cabinet that Kirienko was putting together. Yeltsin himself said that Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Defense Minister Igor Sergeev would keep their jobs. So too would the heads of state committees such as the Federal Security Service (domestic successor to the KGB). Meanwhile, Yeltsin appointed Justice Minister Sergei Stepashin to take over from Kulikov as Interior Minister.

Taking Charge

It appeared, therefore, that Yeltsin had acted, first and foremost, to show the world that he was still in charge and, second, to create a smokescreen behind which to rid himself of certain members of the government. On the principle that a beach is the best place to hide a grain of sand, Yeltsin seems to have sacked the entire cabinet in order to get rid of Chernomyrdin, Chubais and Kulikov.

A clue to Yeltsin’s decision to remove Chernomyrdin came with rumors that, on his recent visit to Washington, Chernomyrdin told Vice President Al Gore that he, not Yeltsin, was running the Russian government. Yeltsin indirectly supported this speculation when he installed Kirienko in Chernomyrdin’s old office. Pointing to the presidential portrait hanging on the wall, Yeltsin warned, "Don’t knock it down before 2000!"

A more serious reason was offered by media tycoon Boris Berezovsky. He claimed to have convinced Yeltsin that Chernomyrdin would be unelectable as president in 2000 and that, unless Yeltsin moved quickly to install an electable successor, the presidency would go to someone who, while electable, would be unable to run the economy. Such a leader would inevitably begin to look for scapegoats from the old leadership once his failure to improve living standards became apparent.

Why Yeltsin wanted to get rid of Chubais is less clear. It may be that he became convinced that Chubais is now so universally hated in Russia that his policies cannot succeed and he has lost his usefulness as a minister. Sacking Chubais on his own would certainly, however, have shaken the confidence of foreign investors and international financial agencies in Russia’s economy.

It is also unclear why Yeltsin sacked Kulikov, though conspiracy theories abound. Some hold that Kulikov was getting too close to potential presidential hopeful Yuri Luzhkov, or that Kulikov was plotting to combine all Russia’s law enforcement agencies and security services under himself. Again, Kulikov is said to have opposed the Kremlin’s plans for military reform, now finally to get off the ground with the recent restructuring of the Security Council. Given what is known about Yeltsin’s conduct in the past, however, it seems likely that the president acted out of personal power considerations and not, as some initially speculated, merely out of rage, confusion or senility.

Moscow Supports Yugoslav Arms Embargo… Reluctantly

On March 31, Russia edged toward its Western partners on the issue of Kosovo, as Moscow joined thirteen other members of the UN Security Council in a unanimous vote to impose an arms embargo on Yugoslavia. China abstained from voting. The UN action, intended to promote a peaceful settlement of the recent crisis in Serbia’s troubled Kosovo province, prevents the sale or supply of arms to Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. The vote was a follow-up to a call by the six-nation Contact Group — which is made up of the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy — for the adoption of an arms embargo against Yugoslavia by the end of March. The group had met to discuss Kosovo in London on March 9 and in Bonn on March 25.

Russia’s approval of the UN embargo on March 31 was anything but a foregone conclusion, however. Moscow sees Yugoslavia’s Serbs as a traditional ally and has been the strongest backer of the current Serbian leadership in Belgrade. Since the outbreak of the crisis over Kosovo, Russian leaders have generally opposed Western calls for sanctions against Belgrade. Moscow has instead urged Serbian leaders to allow Kosovar Albanians greater autonomy while insisting that the problem of Kosovo remains an internal one to be resolved by Yugoslav leaders without foreign interference.

Backing Belgrade

With such goals in mind, Moscow celebrated quietly on March 19 as Western leaders deferred for a week a decision on the imposition of new sanctions against Belgrade. The decision followed a visit to Belgrade by the foreign ministers of Germany and France for a meeting with the leaders of Yugoslavia and Serbia. During those talks, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian President Milan Milutinovic offered just enough in terms of concessions to satisfy his European visitors. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Belgrade leaders had conferred at length with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov only a day earlier, and there was some speculation that he had helped craft their response to the German and French ministers.

Moscow’s hand was more obviously evident at a meeting of the Contact Group that took place in Bonn on March 25 under the chairmanship of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Riven by differences among its members, of which Russia and the United States stood the farthest apart, the group managed only minor action to maintain pressure on Belgrade. A few days earlier, U.S. officials had accused Russia directly of trying to block consensus among the Contact Group members with regard to sanctions against Belgrade. Moscow’s actions came, they said, despite the fact that Yugoslav authorities had failed to withdraw special police forces from Kosovo and that Belgrade had done little in general to meet the requirements set out by the major powers.

Moscow’s decision on March 31 to support the UN arms embargo on Yugoslavia seemed unlikely to end the potential for additional squabbling among Contact Group members on the issue of Kosovo. Russia — which has reportedly signed a deal to supply Belgrade with tanks, attack helicopters, missiles and fighter planes — portrayed its March 31 vote as a tactical concession aimed at heading off the imposition of any additional sanctions on Yugoslavia. Support for the Kremlin’s backing of Belgrade, moreover, remains strong in Russia. A group of Russian lawmakers had begun an official visit to Belgrade when the UN vote took place. Earlier, they had advised the Kremlin to veto the embargo measure.

"Troika" Summit

Kosovo was among the issues discussed by the leaders of Russia, France and Germany at a long anticipated tripartite summit meeting that took place in Moscow on March 26. Russian President Boris Yeltsin was expansive in describing the significance of the first of what are to be a regular series of such three-way meetings. He declared that the summit reflected a vision of a new Europe, united with Russia, that would be a "dominant force" in the world. Yeltsin, who first proposed the three-way summit meetings last October, intimated that stronger ties between Europe and Russia would ultimately come to serve as a diplomatic counterbalance to the United States. But German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac were more circumspect in their own remarks. In the end, this first tripartite summit meeting was more notable for its rhetoric and bonhomie than for its substance.

Welcoming the UN Secretary General

On March 28-29, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan traveled to Moscow, where he addressed the Russian Duma and held talks with President Yeltsin. The Moscow stop was part of Annan’s plan to visit the capitals of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members. His goal, in Moscow and elsewhere, is twofold: to review the terms of the February memorandum he signed in Baghdad; and to try to ensure that some degree of unanimity on Iraq is maintained among the five permanent Security Council members. Moscow was particularly welcoming of Annan because Russian leaders had long urged him to play a greater role in resolving the Iraq crisis. Moscow hailed his February agreement with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, which averted U.S. and British air strikes on Iraq, as a triumph for its own diplomatic efforts.


"The Fortnight in Review" is prepared by Senior Analysts Elizabeth Teague (Russia), Stephen Foye (Security and Foreign Policy), and Vladimir Socor (Non-Russian republics).

Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of "The Fortnight in Review" is strictly prohibited by law.