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For Yeltsin, It's Lonely at the Top--but Not Because He's Powerful

March 06, 1994|Roy Medvedev | Roy Medvedev, a Russian historian, is author of "Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism" (Columbia University Press).

MOSCOW — Since the parliamentary elections two months ago, a new political reality has formed in Russia. Paradoxically, the new constitution has not fulfilled its purpose: to amplify the authority and influence of President Boris N. Yeltsin. The situation is reminiscent of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's. The more new rights and powers the former president received from the Supreme Soviet, the more illusory his authority became.

Besides formal authority, a leader needs the people's faith--and Yeltsin has not received a new installment of the people's trust. His intention to create his own "party of power" is hollow, since only bureaucrats from his administration would join it.

Many influential politicians who only yesterday were totally loyal to Yeltsin now only think about future presidential elections. After meeting with Yeltsin before announcing her resignation, Social Security Minister Ella A. Pamfilova said, "He is very lonely." In other words: Yeltsin is politically isolated, the result of unpopular policies.

What is the new disposition of the political forces in Russia?

Though the majority in the lower chamber of Parliament belongs to the political opposition, Yeltsin cannot even count on the support of his ostensible allies in Russia's Choice. The faction has already announced its opposition to the government of Prime Minister Victor S. Chernomyrdin and increasingly criticizes the president for accepting virtually all the conditions of the "government of pragmatists." Many of his harshest critics--including, Yegor T. Gaidar, Gennady E. Burbulis, Sergei M. Shakhrai, Nikolai I. Travkin, Grigory A. Yavlinsky--were once close allies. The speaker of the lower chamber is Ivan Rybkin, who ran on the conservative Agrarian Party slate.

A more favorable situation exists in the Federation Council, the upper house of Parliament, where Vice Premier Vladimir F. Shumeiko, an ally, was elected chair.

Yet even that advantage is mixed. Although many members of the chamber, as regional heads of administration, owe their jobs to Yeltsin, the election of Shumeiko became possible only after Chernomyrdin intervened.

Indeed, at the center of Russia's changing political reality is the prime minister's growing influence. Chernomyrdin not only enjoys greater support in both houses of Parliament. According to the new constitution, the head of the government is the legal inheritor of presidential powers, the "non-elected vice president." Former Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, who opposed the bankrupt policy of Gaidar, did not even enjoy a fraction of Chernomyrdin's authority.

Yeltsin has sought to offset Chernomyrdin's clout by securing his personal control over the "power" ministries--defense, interior and security. He apparently anticipates more social and economic troubles and is trying to distance himself from the government, shifting responsibility in the prime minister's direction whenever opportunity arises. But judging from Chernomyrdin's behavior, he is not afraid of taking responsibility. He understands that the difficulties connected with reform are tied in the public mind to Yeltsin and Gaidar.

There are equally important developments in the other republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The possible monetary union of Russia and Belarus, which served as a pretext for Gaidar's resignation, could herald the restoration of a ruble zone. It would hold together a budding economic union of former Soviet republics and facilitate their political integration. The economic and military might of the Soviet Union, it should be recalled, was based on the union of Russia, Byelorussia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.

Any real move toward political and economic integration would not be warmly received in the international financial centers that advised the course of action followed by economic reformers Gaidar and Boris G. Fyodorov. With their resignations, the Russian state slowly began to change its course. This shift worries those who favored the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, and supported the bankrupt policy of "shock therapy." To reformers, the recent ouster of Stanislav Shushkevich, chairman of Belarus' Supreme Council, was a major defeat, widely interpreted as the revenge of reform's opponents.

The next scheduled elections in Russia will be local. Given the growing influence of the regional economic and political elites, the importance of these elections should not be underestimated. Russian and foreign political scientists and analysts are looking toward the results with concern: Will the elections confirm the tendencies that emerged last December, when the far-right party of Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky unexpectedly won, or will they reveal more favorable attitudes toward the Kremlin?

As in the days when the Communist Party held political power in the Soviet Union, the overriding problem is that Russia still lacks one fundamental attribute of a democracy: a legal mechanism for transferring power. Yeltsin's starry hour was over long ago. He has clearly run out of political, physical and psychological resources. It is also evident that Yeltsin has not been involved in the implementation of reforms for a long time. He is preoccupied with his personal political survival.

Political isolation is a worrisome symptom of the approaching political collapse. The main task of the painfully emerging Russian democracy is to separate the personal drama of a politician from a repetition of the national tragedy.

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