Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 40

President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov appeared together before the television cameras yesterday to complain about the persistent press rumors that Primakov is already running for the presidency. Following a Kremlin meeting between the two men, Yeltsin noted that last September, when Primakov agreed to head the cabinet, he did so on the condition that he be allowed to stay on until 2000. “He repeated this just now,” the president said, adding: “There are two firm positions. Mine, that I will work until the election of the year 2000, and the position of the premier, that he will work as the premier until the election of a new president.” While Yeltsin did most of the talking, Primakov interjected: “I am sick of these rumors in the newspapers” (Russian agencies, February 25).

What remains unclear is the real reason for this television appearance. Reportedly Yeltsin, without warning, ordered Primakov to come to the Kremlin for yesterday’s meeting. The question, then, is whether the appearance was in response to a demand from Primakov that he get new assurances that he will keep his job until 2000, or whether Yeltsin was trying to force Primakov to go on the record, again, that he would work as prime minister until 2000, as opposed to launching a presidential bid. In any case, Primakov yesterday did not say he would not run for president, though he has repeatedly said that he does not harbor presidential ambitions. Few observers believe he really means it.

Equally few would accept at face value Yeltsin’s pledge that Primakov will keep his job until 2000. A newspaper today ran Yeltsin’s comments of yesterday at the bottom of its front page, alongside Yeltsin’s comments of February 5, 1998–in which he declared that he would “protect” Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov from their enemies and keep the “young reformers” in the government until 2000. Yeltsin fired Chubais and Nemtsov six weeks later (on March 23, 1998) along with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, whom Yeltsin had also promised to keep until 2000 (Vremya MN, February 26).

According to another “version” put forward today, Yeltsin is considerably weaker now than he was last year, and, in calling yesterday’s meeting with Primakov, may have been seeking the prime minister’s help. According to this version, Yeltsin may want Primakov to use his strong support in the parliament to shut down the ongoing impeachment proceedings and to “extinguish” demands for constitutional amendments to weaken the presidency (Kommersant daily, February 26).

More likely, however, is that Primakov is the one feeling nervous. The “peace initiative” he floated last month, calling on the various branches of the government to refrain from using their constitutionally mandated powers, was widely seen as an attempt to ensure that Yeltsin would not suddenly fire him and his cabinet. As Moskovsky Komsomolets recently noted, “the unpredictability and sometimes even irrationality of Yeltsin’s behavior are universally known. So that no-one in the White House [Russian government] today will venture to assert that one fine day the Kremlin boss will not suddenly, for no apparent reason, decide to dismiss his prime minister” (Moskovsky komsomolets, February 23).