Ever since he climbed atop a tank and faced down a hard-line putsch last year, Boris Yeltsin has reigned as the heavyweight champion of Russian politics. And shortly after he elbowed the Soviet Union into the history books last December, Yeltsin plunged into another political brawl by initiating the painful reforms needed to re-establish a market economy. But the president’s once uncanny ability to prevail against steep odds failed him last week as he lost a bitter power struggle in the Congress of People’s Deputies, the country’s top legislative body.
Yielding to the conservative majority in the 1,041-member congress, Yeltsin dropped his key ally, Yegor Gaidar, as prime minister, and replaced the 36-year-old architect of shocktherapy economic reform with Victor Chernomyrdin, 54, a relatively unknown, but respected, career manager in the state industrial system that Gaidar had sought to dismantle. A defiant Yeltsin vowed that there would be no
departure from the new free-market policies. But the president’s drawn appearance and air of exhaustion telegraphed a different message: the champion was on the ropes.
Even his staunchest supporters gloomily acknowledged that Yeltsin bore some responsibility for last week’s political drubbing. According to deputy Anatoly Chabad, Yeltsin made a serious tactical error more than a year ago, when he failed to mobilize the enormous public support that he enjoyed following the August, 1991, coup. The president, argued Chabad, should have dissolved the congress and pushed for a new constitution laying out a clear division of powers between the president and the legislature. Instead, Yeltsin tried to seek consensus with the existing deputies in return for gaining the right to impose his own economic policies by decree. Armed with assurances that they could serve out their five-year terms, the hardline conservative deputies in the congress became increasingly hostile to Yeltsin’s reformers. Evidently fearing further encroachments by his foes, Yeltsin cut short a visit to China on Saturday and flew home, he said, “to restore order.”
Yeltsin’s special powers expired on Dec. 1, the day that the congress convened. Eight days later, when deputies balked at confirming acting prime minister Gaidar to full premiership, an enraged Yeltsin pressed for a nationwide referendum to determine who should lead Russia—the president or the congress. That call plunged the nation into political crisis—and ultimately caused both sides to back away from the brink. In the end, they compromised on a method for selecting the prime minister, and Chernomyrdin, a stalwart of the old Communist party, replaced Gaidar.
With bushy eyebrows that evoke memories of Soviet strongman Leonid Brezhnev, Chernomyrdin, the thickset former energy minister, dramatically illustrates the resiliency and staying power of the former Communist ruling class. The new prime minister began his climb to the upper reaches of the party and the staterun oil and gas industry in 1973 during an era of economic stagnation. And whereas Gaidar wanted to let inefficient industries go bankrupt, his successor favors continuing the massive subsidies and credits to state enterprises in an attempt to stop declining production.
But privatization of state property—the central element of Gaidar’s program—will continue. And though weakened, Yeltsin remains popular. (He also retains his flair for the dramatic: at week’s end, he shocked White House officials by declaring that he would meet President George Bush within three weeks to sign a major arms-reduction treaty that Washington thought was merely under negotiation.) But much of his political strength has always come from his claim that he was the most able line of defence against those who would plunge Russia back into dictatorship. Last week’s events proved that, even when he is defied, the country's slow shuffle towards democracy and market reforms will continue.
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