By Elena Dikun
In early November the Russian Constitutional Court effectively forbade Boris Yeltsin from running in the elections in 2000, ruling that the term he is currently serving is his second, not his first. The constitution does not allow a president to serve for more than two terms in succession. However, the court’s verdict was irrelevant. In the summer Yeltsin had still been seriously entertaining the thought of running for a third time, but by the autumn he was forced to relinquish the idea on medical grounds. Even the president’s closest advisers no longer conceal the fact that their boss is only capable of working for three to four hours per week at most, and even then mainly at his country residence. Now the Kremlin’s task is to do everything possible and more to ensure that the head of state remains in office to the end of his term.
According to our sources, the president’s administration, forced to admit Yeltsin’s limited capacity for work, is now working flat out on two large-scale political projects–which can be loosely termed “creating a new set of functions for the head of state” and “developing a new image for the president.” These projects consist of a detailed plan to smoothly move the head of state away from state affairs, and a program of his new duties and responsibilities. The president’s chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev–who is considered in the Kremlin the only person who can tell the president the truth without losing his job–recently ventured to enlighten Yeltsin of his team’s plan. Yumashev prepared for the meeting very carefully: He placed on Yeltsin’s desk a sheaf of newspaper cuttings containing merciless appraisals of his physical condition and sociological findings showing that 90 percent of the public are critical of the president’s performance. This was an extremely unpleasant revelation for Yeltsin, who became very upset and shouted at Yumashev. Eventually, however, Yeltsin accepted that he would have to restrict his role in the running of the country. He did make one more attempt to show the world that the rumors that he was sick were nothing but gossip: He insisted, until the last minute, that he would go to Vienna for talks with European Union leaders. A team of doctors summoned especially for the purpose, however, concluded that a three-hour flight and four hours of public appearances were absolutely out of the question. After this Yeltsin finally gave in and approved the plan drawn up by his administration.
THE PRESIDENT’S NEW ROLE
In private, senior officials in the president’s administration say that it would be absurd to carry on using the usual images of the “whirlwind president” or the “tank president” to portray Yeltsin to the public. One interviewee remembered how Boris Nemtsov, as first vice premier, would report to the president bearing a file with the word “Tsar” printed on it in gold. Nemtsov would always put it down in a conspicuous place, so that Yeltsin would see it. Yeltsin was clearly flattered by the comparison. Back then the image of the omnipotent monarch sent to the people by God still had some life in it for propaganda purposes. Now it is pointless.
Today, as one high-ranking official put it, the task is to portray Yeltsin as “a man who is not in charge of absolutely everything.” The president’s team faces a difficult job–to imbue the public consciousness with the image not of a fading power-obsessive, surrounded by yesterday’s favorites in Gorky, but of a patriarch who has relinquished his aspirations to reign without time-limit and who has distanced himself from routine matters in order to devote himself to carrying out a number of highly important tasks which only he is capable of handling.
This “new” Yeltsin does not need to instruct the government, or to demand its reports on the payment of pensions and salaries: He will not be signing any more economic decrees. And if he seems really intent on doing so, his administration knows how to dissuade him. Their new spiel has it that Primakov’s cabinet is a government for which the Duma is responsible. Parliament, having been given the chance to delegate its own representatives to the cabinet, should answer for them to the people.
In principle, Yeltsin agrees with this division of responsibility, though he is not planning to abandon his part in the selection and appointment of members of the government, and will not hear of the power ministers and foreign minister reporting to the prime minister. In the draft plan drawn up by the administration, such a reorganization was proposed, but this provision was then carefully edited out. “If anybody broaches an idea like that to Yeltsin he’ll get such an earful that he won’t try to interfere again,” explained one of Prism’s sources.
Having relieved the president of the day-to-day running of the country, his administration has assigned him two main tasks for the remainder of his term: to ensure the transfer of power to a loyal, safe pair of hands, and to refine the Russian constitution. In rewriting the constitution, Yeltsin will be advised by a group of specialists chosen mainly for their loyalty to the current authorities. But in finding and training a presidential successor, he will be able to rely only on his administration. This raises a host of problems.
In the Kremlin, where until recently Chernomyrdin was the only heir they wanted for Yeltsin, hopes are now pinned on Yevgeny Primakov. According to Prism sources, the president’s chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, has had several conversations on this subject with Primakov. Primakov himself, however, is firmly opposed to the idea of running for president. However, the administration thinks that he will come round to the idea by 2000. Meanwhile, Yumashev has told his staff to give every support to the current prime minister–even to “place him slightly above Yeltsin.” Explaining the choice of successor, one Kremlin analyst candidly said: “Yevgeny Maksimovich [Primakov] has an innate respect for authority; he is always loyal to those above him. In this respect, Luzhkov is more of a loose cannon.”
Nevertheless, it is planned to find a replacement for Primakov just in case. According to Prism sources, the hunt “isn’t very well organized,” but the Kremlin hopes that the alignment of political forces may change completely in the next six months, and that events will throw up the new hero. This can be anybody, as long as they are totally unlike Krasnoyarsk governor Aleksandr Lebed or Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. These two figures evoke genuine fear among the president’s staff. Tales are anxiously told in the Kremlin of people who have journeyed from the Far East to “warn that Lebed is riding high there, and has every chance of victory, but Moscow doesn’t realize it.” As for Yuri Luzhkov, who has entered the race without the Kremlin’s blessing, his behavior is seen as nothing less than “treachery and treason.” “Yuri Mikhailovich [Luzhkov] has been corrupted by Moscow’s wealth and by money he did not earn. He is not undergoing any inner development, he doesn’t understand economics and there are no bright stars in his circle. He is sowing the seeds of a personality cult in Moscow. If Luzhkov had become prime minister, he would have forced Yeltsin out of the Kremlin,” responsible Kremlin observers explained eagerly. And then they mourn that they themselves are contributing to the Moscow mayor’s rise: “We are not offering the governors and mayors any alternative, so even those who can’t stand Luzhkov are trying to touch his cap.”
The Kremlin administration is well aware that the public will find it rather difficult to come to terms with the head of state’s new image. Uncommon skill is therefore required of the sculptors of the new Yeltsin. The old tricks (for example: “if the president hasn’t been seen for a while it means he’s working on his papers”) have not worked for a long time. Nothing better has been thought up.
The hopes surrounding the president’s new press secretary Dmitri Yakushkin have not been fulfilled. He is trying very hard, but he has not been able to show with any plausibility that the absent head of state is actively working. It has been agreed with Yeltsin that particularly important announcements about the president’s activities will be made by the first deputy chief of staff, Oleg Sysuev. Sysuev has a suitably doleful expression and a moving speaking voice.
The public will continue to see the president “at first hand” in small doses, but the number of these appearances has not yet been regulated. Meanwhile, the head of state’s new image is being cobbled together pretty badly. The Kremlin hasn’t even been able to ensure that Yeltsin looks dignified on television. This autumn, when the president’s health deteriorated sharply, an information blockade was once again set up around him: “Outside” journalists were not allowed near the Kremlin, and all meetings with Russia’s head of state were filmed by the president’s own cameramen and photographers. The president’s press office then gave the film to any television companies that wanted it free of charge. However, since the sacking of former Press Secretary Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who always studied the material meticulously and decided what could be shown and what could not, there are no professionals in the Kremlin who know how to handle the television pictures. This important job has been left unsupervised, and everything is done in a haphazard fashion. For example, the producers in the Kremlin handed out unedited film of the president’s meeting with the new vice premiers. The television audience was delighted–this was better than a circus act.
The president’s image advisor Tatyana Dyachenko tried and failed to stop one of these films being shown on national television. Having found out from the president’s press secretary Dimity Yakushkin what material he had given the TV companies, Dyachenko asked for the film to be returned for “examination.” The press secretary rushed off to telephone the TV companies, but they told him where to go: “Who do you think you are to tell us what we can show?!”
After this the president’s press office took to the path of least resistance. To avoid broadcasting any more of Yeltsin’s blunders, they have taken to removing the soundtrack from his speeches. Thus, viewers were treated to a dumb show of the president’s meeting with Defense Minister Igor Sergeev. It looked odd to say the least. It is as though the president has been stripped of his right to free speech: The guarantor of the constitution is the first person in Russia to have his freedom of expression curtailed.
Elena Dikun is a political columnist for the Obshchaya gazeta.