Moscow looked like a city under martial law last week as tanks, armored personnel carriers and 16,000 military and police reinforcements patrolled the Russian capital. The increased security measures were intended to guard against terrorist attacks such as the one in southern Russia last month, when rebels from the breakaway republic of Chechnya seized more than 1,000 hostages and held them until the Kremlin agreed to a ceasefire in the mountainous Caucasus region. But the armed presence was also a fitting metaphor for the political crisis engulfing President Boris Yeltsin, who has come under repeated fire for his government’s economic policies and its iron-fisted response to Chechnya’s independence drive. Declared promarket reformer Grigory Yavlinsky: “Yeltsin is not fit to run the country. He has mishandled privatization and started the reckless war in Chechnya.”
Yeltsin survived one challenge late last week when the Russian parliament rejected a non-confidence motion in his government by a vote of 193 to 116. Still, in an attempt to placate deputies the day before the parliamentary vote, Yeltsin was forced to accept the resignations of several key national security officials linked to the Chechen debacle. Among them: Interior Minister Viktor Yerin, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Yegorov and federal security director Sergei Stepashin. But while the president refused to bow to opposition demands that he accept the resignation of Defence Minister Pavel Grachev, there was little doubt that Yeltsin’s already shaky hold on power had been further compromised.
At 64, Yeltsin no longer resembles the energetic populist who, four years ago, crawled atop a hostile tank to face down leaders of a hardline coup against then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. His face is puffy, and his gait and speech are often unsteady. Aides blame both on the medication that he takes for persistent back pain and frequent colds. But his political enemies put forward another explanation: heavy drinking. “When the president is drunk, the whole country suffers from drunkenness,” said nationalist deputy Anatoly Kaspirvosky. “I can tell you that the president is a very sick man.”
Even Yeltsin’s wife, Naina, apparently alarmed by the physical toll that the presidency has exacted on her husband, has hinted that he should step down instead of seeking a further four-year term in presidential elections scheduled for next June. The president, whose popularity has fallen to single digits amid rising unemployment, crime and inflation, has yet to announce whether he will
stand for re-election. But while he remains silent, many Russians, including several former allies, have already written him off as a political force.
Discontent with Yeltsin is so pervasive, in fact, that several well-worn figures from the past are contemplating a run at Russia’s highest office. The list includes Gorbachev, al-
though polls suggest that the former Soviet president’s popularity is even lower than Yeltsin’s. Many hardliners have never forgiven Gorbachev for initiating the reforms that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia’s democrats, meanwhile, are widely blamed for the economic pain caused by the country’s uncertain lurch towards capitalism—and, as a result, have only slightly better hopes. They have splintered into squabbling
factions, seemingly incapable of uniting behind a single, plausible alternative to Yeltsin.
With the moderates in disarray, conditions are ripe for challenges from both the left and the right. Russia’s revamped Communist party, which advocates slowing free-market re forms, has already made important inroads among the poor and discontented, particularly in urban areas. Led by Gennady Zyuganov, an obscure 50-year-old bureaucrat who favors voluntary reunification of the Soviet Union, the Communists have quietly rebuilt themselves into a political force that now boasts some 600,000 active members. During parliamentary elections, scheduled for this December, the Communists are expected to join forces with members of the like-minded Agrarian Party, which has a strong rural base. That alliance, says Moscow-based political analyst Sergei Parkhomenko has “a really good chance of taking over the legislature.”
Russia’s future, however, will depend even more on the outcome of the next presidential race. The most charismatic candidate may well be Alexander Lebed, a former general with a reputation for bluntness and honesty. Before he resigned from the military „ last month, Lebed had I openly criticized his cornil mander-in-chief for rushing I ill-prepared army units into I Chechnya. Now a civilian 5 and poised to enter politics, the 45-year-old Lebed has a simple plan for restoring order and economic health to Russia: a crackdown on crime and corruption.
Lebed, though popular, is still a political neophyte. Yeltsin could face a far more serious challenge from his own prime minister. Initially regarded as little more than a bland Soviet-style aparatchik, the 57-year-old Viktor Chernomyrdin, former head of the national gas monopoly, has developed into a political heavyweight since becoming prime minister 2V2 years ago. With Yeltsin out of the country for the G-7 summit in Halifax last month, Chernomyrdin gained a high public profile by negotiating an end to the Chechen hostage crisis.
Many Russians now openly hope that Yeltsin might step down in favor of Chernomyrdin. But despite his newfound political weight, Chernomyrdin faces a difficult balancing act. Having been appointed by Yeltsin, the prime minister has had to support the unpopular president while at the same time trying to distance himself from the increasingly unpopular war in Chechnya. Even if Yeltsin rides out the current crisis, his political career appears to be drawing to a close.
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