Last Thursday (November 5), Russia’s Constitutional Court put a year or more of speculation to rest when it ruled that Boris Yeltsin is in his second, not his first term, and thus cannot run for re-election in 2000. Not that anyone in recent months really believed that Yeltsin could still be contemplating a third presidential run, given his obviously declining state. Indeed, even before the court’s decision, officials in Yeltsin’s administration announced that Yeltsin would no longer be concerning himself with day-to-day questions of economic management, but rather would serve out his term fulfilling his role as guarantor of Russia’s constitution and unity. Oleg Sysuev, deputy presidential chief of staff, announced that Yeltsin would lay out his new role in his annual address to parliament early next year.

While the court’s decision was not a big surprise, some observers saw it as a kind of landmark. Georgy Satarov, a former Yeltsin adviser who now heads the “Indem” think-tank, said it formally marked the end of Yeltsin’s historical “mission” to defeat communism and put Russia on a new road. Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation, was more skeptical. In his view, this historical mission will be complete only when Russia, for the first time in its thousand-year history, saw “a constitutional transfer of power from one head of state to another.” This transfer, Nikonov warned, could be thwarted by various circumstances, including the postponement of presidential elections due to civil unrest or the implementation of Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev’s idea of having the president chosen not in a general election, but by a “collegium of electors.” Additionally, some observers warned that it is too early to write Yeltsin off, noting that he retains, constitutionally, control over the military and other “power ministries” as well as the right to appoint and dismiss the cabinet. On top of that, Yeltsin, even in his decline, remains an “an experienced fighter, who might still show his claws,” as Nikonov put it.