Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 6

Yeltsin’s Political Purge

by Andrei Zhukov

The beginning of 1996 was marked by an unprecedented wave of personnel changes and resignations at the top echelons of Russian power. Of the twenty-six ministers and vice premiers dismissed during the three years that Viktor Chernomyrdin has been prime minister, seven were removed from their posts during the first two weeks of 1996. In late January, President Yeltsin announced that personnel changes in the government had been completed. Nevertheless, the wave of resignations went on, this time touching "second echelon" officials — deputy ministers, governors, and well-known members of the presidential apparatus. In all, nearly twenty people were forced to resign from upper levels of the Russian government during the first two months of 1996.

Personnel shakeups are a fairly ordinary phenomenon on the eve of elections: top leaders seek to dissociate themselves from the most unpopular measures adopted during their rule and, hence, make themselves less vulnerable to criticism. Changes in leadership are also designed to demonstrate to the public that the government is adopting some kind of new course. Resignations among the Russian ruling elite over the past two months have fallen into three principal categories: the removal of the last democrats remaining in the government; a reshuffling of economic lobby groups; and a campaign against "saboteurs" responsible for the wage payments crisis. These three categories also define the specific course chosen by the Russian leadership on the eve of the presidential election.

The first and, apparently, major blow was against those who personified radical democratic reform, i.e., against those people who have surrounded the president for the past three to four years. Among the "radical democratic reformers" forced to resign were foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, Vice Premier Sergei Shakhrai, Presidential Administration head Sergei Filatov, and Vice Premier Anatoly Chubais. Accompanying this set of resignations were those of the Russian ambassador to the Vatican (and former presidential press secretary), Vyacheslav Kostikov, and the director of the State Radio and Television Company, Oleg Poptsov. In late January, democrats Yegor Gaidar and Otto Latsis voluntarily left the Presidential Council and eminent human rights activist and head of the Commission on Human Rights Sergei Kovalev resigned all his posts.

The motivation behind this "selection" is crystal clear: the incumbent president wants to be re-elected. He has virtually no chance of winning if he campaigns as a champion of reform; his only chance to be re-elected is to cross over and lead the fight against the negative consequences of reform. It was not inconsequential that Yeltsin once noted: "Chubais is to be blamed for the fact that ‘Russia is Our Home’ (ROH) received only ten percent in the State Duma elections. Had we fired him earlier, ROH would have received 20 percent." Kremlin analysts now want people to believe that the president is a simple, open-hearted, and trusting man who was deceived. Chubais deceived him with privatization; Shakhrai, with nationalities policy; and Kozyrev, as it turns out, altogether undermined Russia’s status as a superpower. Once the president discovered the fraud, however, he punished all the guilty. By dismissing precisely those officials whose removal had long been demanded by the opposition, Yeltsin became less vulnerable to criticism and demonstrated that he is not so much devoted to the idea of democracy as he is to the idea of caring for his people.

The second wave of dismissals realized the theme of concern for the least protected social strata of the Russian population. Already in late 1995, the president issued a resolution on strengthening executive discipline in the Economics and Finance Ministries, which were both given two weeks to draw up lists of "saboteurs" for removal. The dismissals were not long in coming. On February 11, Deputy Finance Minister Stanislav Kovalev was fired "for failing to implement measures of social protection of the people." On February 21, the president gave the government three days to remove Vyacheslav Polyakov as general director of the Communications Ministry’s Postage Department and Aleksandr Smirnov as head of the Finance Ministry’s Central Federal Treasury Department. Polyakov was accused of "gross violations which resulted in the misuse of Pension Fund monies." Smirnov, in the president’s opinion, was responsible for improper disbursement of budget funds. Fired on the same day were the governor of the Saratov region, Yuri Belykh; the governor of the Arkhangelsk region, Pavel Balakshin; and the presidential representative to the Saratov region, Vladimir Golovachev, "for improper use of federal budget funds." A criminal case has even been opened against the governor of the Volgograd region, Nikolai Podgorny. An anecdotal incident occurred during the president’s visit to Ekaterinburg, when Boris Yeltsin ordered an investigation of a certain director of a joint-stock company who, in the president’s opinion, was paid an excessively high salary.

Today, many analysts conclude that social issues will dominate Boris Yeltsin’s election campaign. The public’s grievances against the government and the president are well known: the impoverishment of a significant part of the population and delays in the payment of wages, pensions, and benefits. By firing "saboteur" officials, the president demonstrates that he understands people’s needs as well as what must be done to improve the situation. It is almost as if Yeltsin has again begun to pay attention to the people, whose votes he needs to win the election.

At first glance, the president’s third blow appeared to be directed against lobbying efforts on behalf of different branches of industry. Transport minister Vitaly Yefimov was forced to resign in early January and was soon joined by Minister of Agriculture Aleksandr Nazarchyuk (January 15); State Committee for Defense Industries chairman Viktor Glukhikh (January 23); State Committee for Precious Metals and Gems chairman Yevgeny Bychkov (February 21); deputy finance minister responsible for supervising the activities of the State Committee for Precious Metals and Gems Anatoly Golovaty (February 28). These official had stuck to their own domains and defended the professional and financial interests of those domains at higher levels of power.

Upon investigation, however, it turns out that the president’s blow was not aimed at industrial or economic lobbying. For example, Evgeny Bychkov, as head of the State Committee for Precious Metals and Gems, distinguished himself by his tough position at negotiations with the South African firm De Beers, where he defended Russian, and not narrow professional, interests. As for Mr. Glukhikh, he aroused the displeasure of directors of the military-industrial complex enterprises by attempting to establish proper order in arms exports. Thus the officials who were fired were not lobbying on behalf of their own industrial sectors.

The fact that Vice Premier Aleksandr Zaveryukha has remained in his post testifies to the enduring strength of the Agrarian lobby. In fact, the removal of the "unwanted" was accompanied by a strengthening of different sectoral lobby groups. Thus, Oleg Soskovets, well-known for his ties with nonferrous metal exporters and the military-industrial complex, has been appointed chief of the president’s re-election headquarters. (Soskovets simultaneously supervises the work of the government’s Council for Industrial Policy and Entrepreneurship, which includes representatives from Russia’s largest financial structures, stock exchanges, and industries). AVTOVAZ General Director Vladimir Kadannikov has become senior vice premier.

Apparently, the dismissal of several heads of industrial committees (each having the rank of minister) accomplished an altogether different goal. It was used to enlist the support of "money bags" among the Russian entrepreneurial elite. The president has demonstrated that while he can protect their interests, he can also act against them. Second, the dismissal of industrial committee heads obviously fulfilled a propaganda task, given that the general public will not understand whether this or that minister was involved in lobbying activities. All the dismissed can be portrayed as lobbyists for the bourgeoisie [kompradorskaia burzhuaznaia], of having wrested credits from the government at the expense of ordinary people.

The contours of Russian policy over the next three months are now discernible. More attention will be paid to the social needs of ordinary people (for example, the government was ordered to pay all the withheld wages by March 1). Relationships with the CIS states will be developed more intensively (during the Belarusian president’s recent visit to Moscow, the creation of a superstate structure intended to integrate the countries of Belarus and Russia was announced). Finally, more attention will be given to protecting Russian speakers in the independent states, domestic goods producers will be protected, and a tougher stance will be adopted on the international arena. That is to say that Russian policy will consist of those measures long advocated by the left opposition. Nevertheless, the president has hinted that these changes are tactical (and thus temporary) and must not lead Russia to depart from the course of the reforms.

Here one must ask: Who else could fall victim to these tactical concessions? Naturally, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin heads the list of potential candidates. The president’s increasing criticism of the government’s performance indirectly confirms the fact that Chernomyrdin is under pressure to resign. At this point his fate depends on how promptly the government can fulfill the president’s orders, particularly those which pertain to social problems. Yet Chernomyrdin will remain in place at least until the end of April — he cannot be removed earlier because the public would forget who "the main culprit" was by election day and because Chernomyrdin himself would then be able to enter the presidential race.

The probability of Viktor Chernomyrdin’s removal appears to be 50 percent. No less probable is that certain of his deputies or a minister from the economic sphere may be forced to resign. As concerns the latter, finance minister Vladimir Panskov and economics minister Yevgeny Yasin top the list of likely candidates for dismissal. Rumors about their impending resignations circulate, on average, once a month. It should not be very difficult to remove these two ministers, particularly now that newly appointed Vice Premier Vladimir Kadannikov supervises economic policy. According to certain sources, Kadannikov has borne a grudge against the finance minister since his days at AVTOVAZ. In fact, the position of Vladimir Panskov appears to be shakiest: two persons from his entourage have already been dismissed.

Vice Premier Aleksandr Zaveryukha, who supervises agriculture, is another candidate for removal. His membership in the Agrarian Party (which lost the recent State Duma elections) and the grave situation in agriculture make Zaveryukha extremely vulnerable. The fact that Zaveryukha is wisely creating a "safe exit" for himself by forming a social-political organization of peasants to support Boris Yeltsin for president confirms the tenuousness of his position.

Vice Premier Vladimir Kinelev, who supervises the system of higher education, is another probable victim. His appointment in early January was reminiscent of ritual sacrifice: a period of increasing the number of vice premiers is inevitably followed by an "ebb-tide" when a campaign to reduce staff is launched. Such "extra" vice premiers are quite suitable for such moments.

The dismissal of ordinary ministers will evidently be tied to the demands and slogans of the opposition. For example, defense minister Pavel Grachev arouses the greatest annoyance among the left opposition. In one of his recent speeches, the president remarked that he is often told that he should not enter the election campaign with Grachev as defense minister because he will not win. Nevertheless, Grachev’s position in the government remains very strong (he is not subordinate to the premier, but directly to the president). He even recently received a personal commemorative medal from Yeltsin. As far as the other "power" ministers, they are also unlikely to be removed — they have stood close to Yeltsin for too long and the president views them as personal friends.

The government will certainly make some concessions, but they will be less significant. It is well known that the Liberal Democrats (Zhirinovsky’s party) have their eyes on the posts of social protection minister, health care minister, and education minister. High-ranking members of the LDPR even maintain that Prime Minister Chernomyrdin received their demands "with understanding." What Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin will demand from the LDPR in exchange is not yet known. One thing, however, is clear. Despite assurances that the personnel turnover in the government has ended, new dismissals will follow. According to information at the author’s disposal, the presidential apparatus, following a tradition of long standing, is now preparing draft presidential decrees on the removal of personnel. The question is: Which of the draft decrees will the president choose to sign?

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky

Andrei Zhukov writes for the Globe Press Syndicate.