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National Agenda : The Battle for Boris' Mind


MOSCOW — 'Everybody fights to be the first to get to him, the first to whisper the whole truth into his ear like a wise serpent, the first to form the czar's concepts of reality.'--VERA KUZNETSOVA, reporter for Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper

Things appeared to be all set. After two years of arguing out amendments and honing clauses, the Russian constitutional commission was ready this month to present its finished product--the nation's lofty new founding law.

And then, to members' horror, word came that a group of Russian politicians headed by the mayor of St. Petersburg were preparing their own draft and that they intended to win President Boris N. Yeltsin's endorsement first.

Once again, the race to the president through the back corridors of Russian power was on.

"Whoever gets to the bathhouse first and pours him the first glass of vodka--there's your constitution," Russian reporter Sergei Parkhomenko said in an admittedly cynical exaggeration that he nonetheless maintains is an accurate reflection of the true spirit of current Russian politics.

This latest round of jostling for Yeltsin's imprimatur on a crucial policy question reflects the tumultuous inner dynamics of a government that, despite its formal elements of Western-style democracy, still revolves very much around one man and the advisers who surround him. The key battles over Russian policy, politicians and journalists here say, hinge not on parliamentary debate or public opinion polls but on the interplay of the insiders who jockey for Yeltsin's attention.

"As it has always been in Russia, there has to be a czar to make decisions," said Vera Kuznetsova, who covers Yeltsin for the prestigious newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "And everybody fights to be the first to get to him, the first to whisper the whole truth into his ear like a wise serpent, the first to form the czar's concepts of reality."

Ella A. Pamfilova, Russia's social affairs minister, said she can feel from within the government that "there's a struggle under way over Yeltsin. And it's full of very complex feelings--jealousy, personal ambition, people finding their place in power. It's a struggle for influence over Yeltsin."

The maneuvering in his retinue carries crucial significance because, even though Yeltsin became Russia's first popularly elected president by winning a hefty majority in a free vote, the other parts of a typical checks-and-balances system of government have yet to mature.

The Parliament, elected in 1990 and reflecting that earlier era's political obedience, has repeatedly given Yeltsin greater powers and generally offers only token resistance to his decrees.

The Constitutional Court, which has the power to invalidate Yeltsin's decrees, began work only last month. Russia remains in constitutional limbo, and the fate of the new constitution itself is to be decided at the next session of the Russian Congress, scheduled for April 6. Without Yeltsin's political weight behind it, its chances for passage are minimal.

Political parties remain splintered, unruly and virtually powerless. Even Democratic Russia, the broad movement that ran Yeltsin's campaign, has split.

With local elections postponed, public opinion has few direct channels of influence on the government, unless it takes the extreme form of strikes and riots.

It now seems, said Leonid Byzov, a sociologist at the Russian Parliament, that most of the "democrats" who took power from the old Communist Party elite "interpret democracy as the power of democrats--i.e., themselves, and nothing more."

Thus, for Russian observers, keeping track of their government's policy is much like the Kremlinology of old, turning mainly into attempts to track what happens inside Yeltsin's inner sanctum and inside his mind.

"So many serpents are all whispering the most contradictory things in his ears," Kuznetsova said, naming, in particular, First Deputy Prime Minister Gennady E. Burbulis, considered by many the most influential of Yeltsin's advisers, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei M. Shakhrai and Chief of Staff Yuri V. Petrov. "You can only imagine what's happening in Yeltsin's head."

The most striking aspect of the process, she added, is that "he has this certain quality that, at some moment, he takes an independent decision that, as a rule, hits the mark amazingly."

When Yeltsin impulsively declared a state of emergency in the rebellious Caucasus enclave of Chechen-Ingushetia last fall, some politicians blamed the influence of conservative Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi. But Russian lawmaker Vladimir N. Lysenko attributed the move to the influence of hard-line patriots who struck a chord somewhere in Yeltsin's soul. "Yeltsin the democrat vs. Yeltsin the patriot is still a very big problem," he said.

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