Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 12

Yeltsin’s heart attack reshapes Russian politics

The Week Just Past

Three developments dominated the past week: Yeltsin’sacknowledgment that he had suffered a heart attack, movement towardat least a temporary settlement in Chechnya, and maneuvering byCentral Asian and Caucasian states for allies and pipeline routesto the West.


After his aides engaged in an apparent falsification recallingMao’s swim in the Yangtze, Russian President Boris Yeltsin acknowledgedthat he had suffered a heart attack on July 10. Despite his suggestionthat he would recover fully, his admission, and the fact thatit came only after massive expressions of skepticism by the mediaand the population, appeared to open the 1996 presidential campaign–evenas Yeltsin’s July 14 decree formally launched the parliamentaryraces. Several presidential hopefuls–including Prime MinisterViktor Chernomyrdin, retired Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Lebed, and perennialhopeful Grigory Yavlinsky–carefully sought to advance their causes,while being careful to avoid any direct attack on the still powerfulYeltsin. One newspaper even went so far as to suggest that Yeltsinshould begin now to hand over power to those who will succeedhim, lest his last year in office become a dangerous interregnumin which a new conflict among the country’s power ministers, orbetween them and the parliament, could break out.

The impact of Yeltsin’s acknowledgment was magnified by the startof the parliamentary election campaign. While Yeltsin has wonmost of the battles in defining the playing field on which thiscompetition will take place, several aspects of the campaign thatwill hurt him and the government are already in evidence. Regionalbosses may want to support Chernomyrdin’s "Russia is OurHome" party of power, but they know their own worth and willextract a price. The Siberian Accord regional association wasthe first to make such demands: it asked Chernomyrdin to yield50 percent of the country’s oil revenues to the regions from whichthe oil is extracted. Other regions and groups will advance similardemands to Chernomyrdin, and to all other candidates. Some candidateswill certainly play to the crowd and make elaborate promises. As a result, the elections will exacerbate, rather than overcome,the regional and functional splits already in evidence in Russiansociety.


The second major development of the week was the discussion atall levels and on both sides of just how to reach an agreementwhich would square the circle in Chechnya, keeping that regionwithin the Russian Federation while acknowledging Chechnya’s specialsituation to a degree that would satisfy most Chechens. BothRussians and Chechens appeared split on the matter. Russian pollsshowed, and commentators suggested, that Russians have littlestomach for further fighting even if failing to fight would leadto Chechen independence, and the Chernomyrdin government appearedready to recognize the existence of Dudayev’s government priorto the December elections, even if not to grant it any legitimacy. But at the same time, the Russian power ministries were doingall they could to prevent any further Russian concessions–possiblyeven staging provocations, and certainly making use of media toportray the Chechens in as bad a light as possible–with a possibleeye to restarting the fighting and thus enhancing their own statusand power in Moscow.

The Chechens were also divided. Even if the negotiators canagree with some Russian formulation, there is no certainty thatthey can carry the military commanders with them. Indeed, witheach passing day, the possibility that these Chechen commanderswill strike out on their own either in Chechnya or in an attackinside Russia, appears to increase. Consequently, the Chechennegotiating team is looking over its shoulder as well, and itmay have hardened its position after consultations with DzhokharDudayev just as the Russian team appears to have done.


The third major development of the week involved an entire region,Central Asia and the Caucasus. After the Russian government indicatedthat it might be willing to allow oil pipelines from these countriesto pass through third countries, rather than through Russia, ontheir way to the West, diplomats and political figures in Azerbaijan,Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan were all on the roadseeking alliances with each other and with Iran and Turkey inorder to press their cases. But they may have all assumed toomuch. Russian suggestions of a new tolerance for alternative pipelineroutes seem to be very much a testing of the waters, and Yeltsin’scall for a new Caucasus regional summit this fall indicates thatMoscow wants to influence the decision on the pipelines even ifit does not have the last word on just where they will go.


Other developments of the past week which are likely to affectthe future include:

–Ukraine’s seat at the London table for Contact Group discussionson what should be done in Bosnia represents a significant stepup in its diplomatic presence in the world. While Moscow maywelcome a Ukrainian voice backing Russian opposition to the useof NATO power in Yugoslavia, the Russian government will certainlysee this new Ukrainian gain as its own loss.

–Moscow stepped up its campaign to regain its diplomatic positionin the Middle East and to end UN sanctions against Iraq. Russianofficials visited Iran and Iraq during the past week to firm upMoscow’s ties there, and the foreign ministry announced that AndreiKozyrev will be going to Kuwait in the near future.

–Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s dry but upbeatreport to the Duma on the economy had the unintended consequenceof highlighting not how far Moscow has come, but how far it hasyet to go. Parliamentarians and journalists challenged his rosypicture of the country, noting rising unemployment, the continuingfailure of the government and many enterprises to pay workers,and the collapse of public confidence in the future, despite thestrengthening of the ruble against foreign currencies. One expressionof this mood was the Duma’s decision not to confirm Tatyana Paramonovaas director of the Russian Central Bank.

–Russia’s Paramonova was not the only banker to have problemslast week. A Moscow banker was killed gangland-style, and banksboth in Russia and in Latvia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and severalother countries in the region reported rising deficits and threatenedbankruptcies. In Latvia, the banking crisis spread into the politicalsystem, with the upcoming parliamentary elections becoming theoccasion for government and opposition posturing on the failureof the Baltija Bank, and the consequences of that failure for20 percent of Latvians who had deposits with that institution.

–Another event which is likely to fuel passions in the futurewas Federation Council chairman Vladimir Shumeiko’s dismissalof Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba, a Russian client in the past,as a criminal in a class with Chechnya’s Dzhokhar Dudayev. Shumeiko’sremarks drew the fire of a number of regional leaders within theRussian Federation, including Tatarstan’s president Mintimir Shaimiyev,who suggested that such attitudes would make it ever more difficultfor the regions to work with Moscow.