Yeltsin rules with a bear’s strength

The stakes of Russian roulette are always life or death. But the winner isn’t always determined by the barrel of a gun. These days in Moscow, the game is being played at the highest levels of government with the Russian Constitution as the weapon of choice.
We’ve all seen Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s latest tactics in arranging the government to his liking. At times he has made politics look like a game. But few have given him the benefit of the doubt.
Yeltsin’s skill in playing this game of chance should not be underestimated. The guy is smart. Damn smart. And in the next few days, Russians and followers of democracy around the world may learn that his willingness to test the odds could pay off.
The political jockeying isn’t about Yeltsin’s health. It certainly isn’t about some alcoholic delusions he’s alleged to be living out. It isn’t even about his supposed fear of another political coup. Yeltsin is playing constitutional hardball and spinning the wheel of Russia’s fortune.
In the past month, he’s proven that he’s willing to do everything the Russian Constitution allows to prevent the country from falling back into Communist hands.
If Yeltsin wins the current spin of the wheel, the members of Russia’s parliament, the Duma, might lose more than their pride. According to the Russian Constitution, Yeltsin will be able to remove them from office.
Friday, the Duma will be left in a do or die position. If they vote against Yeltsin’s appointment of Sergei Kiriyenko to the office of Prime Minister, Yeltsin most likely will disband the sitting members of the Duma.
The way the system works in Moscow, it’s three strikes and Parliament is out. That’s right. Constitutionally, if the Duma fails to confirm Kiriyenko, who is in his third nomination, Yeltsin can send them to the unemployment lines. All of them.
Of course the whole world will be watching as both Yeltsin’s supporters and detractors try to figure out his next move. Prognosticators can’t even come up with reliable odds that might tell the rest of the world which way the country will go. The subsequent elections of replacements for ousted Duma members could go either way, for the Communists or for the Yeltsinites.
The Russian Constitution, adopted in 1993, unlike the U.S. Constitution, grants exceptional powers to the president in times of crisis. Russian government workers and members of the military haven’t seen paychecks in months, a crisis if there ever was one.
On Tuesday night, Russian commentator Melor Sturua and Evelyn Davidheiser, assistant director for international studies at the University, discussed the state of Russian politics at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute. The two offered perspectives on Russia’s unfolding events and asked whether they were a “light at the end of the tunnel, or a new crisis?”
The speakers acknowledged that Russia is still in search of a national identity. The nation’s history stretches back only six years as a democracy. It has yet to officially adopt its national flag, nor does it even have lyrics to its national anthem.
Yeltsin’s approval rating has plummeted into single digits, and only 18 percent of Russians surveyed in 1996, according to Davidheiser, believed that their lives had improved under capitalism. Thirty-six percent said living conditions had gotten much worse. Another 50 percent, according to Davidheiser’s study, said that the collapse of the USSR was a bad thing. “The main problem,” Davidheiser notes, “has been identifying alternatives to Yeltsin.”
Yeltsin, like Russia, has had his share of nasty troubles. But so far, he has held his own. He has beaten his health problems and the critics that have tried to tear down his administration.
Although it’s still too early to tell if Yeltsin is bent on creating more and more power for himself, his current moves provide a clear picture of the motives behind his presidency.
At the very least, Yeltsin has done a remarkable job creating the image that he is willing to take drastic measures in the attempt to create urgently needed solutions to Russia’s current problems. No matter how down and out his health or popularity have been, he’s had the propensity to bounce back with bold moves.
Most Americans chuckled when they heard that Yeltsin had dismissed his entire cabinet for what he cited, initially, as their inactivity in keeping the Russian economy growing. We assumed that Yeltsin must have been in a drunken stupor and thought, “If only our president exercised such power!”
Even more surprising was his appointment of Kiriyenko to Prime Minister. The 35-year-old engineer nominated to take senior statesman Viktor Chernomyrdin’s position looked like a fresh addition to the Russian political landscape. Many in the West gave Yeltsin the benefit of the doubt and saw the gesture as, potentially, well-intentioned. Yeltsin, after all, must have been appealing to the younger generation to take the reins of his legacy, right?
Wrong. Yeltsin has proven that he’s much more calculated in using constitutional power, either for his own ends or for those of his liberal party. He sure as hell wasn’t drunk.
Soon after appointing Kiriyenko to replace Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin reinstated his original cabinet, pulling a “Fooled ya!” on everyone. Even though the apparent roundabout transfer of power left observers scratching their heads, it became clear that Yeltsin was up to something.
Kiriyenko doesn’t look at all like the competent leader that Yeltsin’s supporters had initially assumed. The Duma is left with Friday’s daunting task of either approving an appointment that few Russians see as a serious administrator of power or voting him down. If he goes down, they go down, solidifying Yeltsin’s grasp on Russian power through and after 2000, when the next presidential election will occur.
He has made contradictory statements about his candidacy for 2000, but as Sturua notes, “Yeltsin claims he’s already picked his successor — it’s Yeltsin himself.” He’s gambling that the current members of the Duma will be replaced with Yeltsinites, dedicated to continuing the reforms he’s initiated.
Of course, Russia is still a democracy and Yeltsin’s gamble could backfire. However, the majority of Russians, according to Davidheiser’s study, do appreciate the Western styles of freedom that the new Russia has allowed. This is why the 2000 elections are so critical. And Yeltsin knows it.
In 1996, when given the chance to decide what kind of economic system under which they wanted to live, capitalist or communist, the Russian people voted for capitalism, Boris Yeltsin. On a daily basis, Russia’s gulags retreat further and further into the annals of history.
In the coming presidential election of the year 2000, Russians will build on the fundamental decisions they have made. The next vote will be not only for president, but for the kind of capitalist society they want — one ruled by a democratic system of checks and balances, or one closer to Yeltsin’s brand of presidential rule.
So far he has proven that he’s willing to make bold but not careless moves in preserving what Russia has gained. His apparent willingness to gamble with presidential power, meanwhile, leaves the entire world hoping that the next spin of the wheel doesn’t ruin the constitutional freedoms Russia has gained thus far. Neither he nor the people who elected him can afford anything less.

Gregory Borchard’s column appears every Thursday. He can be reached with comments via e-mail at [email protected]