Russian President Boris Yeltsin has roused himself from his sickbed, where he is being treated for a bleeding ulcer, to launch what could be the next round of a political shakeup in the Kremlin. There are good reasons to change key personnel in Moscow — the economy continues to totter and the government of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov appears unwilling to do much about it — but this shuffle seems to be animated by personal animosities and paranoia. Russia needs leadership; another round of character assassination and political musical chairs will not provide it.
The immediate target of Mr. Yeltsin’s wrath is Mr. Boris Berezovsky, who is serving as executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose association of 12 former Soviet republics. Mr. Berezovsky is also Mr. Yeltsin’s former adviser, supporter and confidant — less charitably, he is considered the president’s Rasputin, a shadowy figure who pulls strings behind the scenes. Mr. Berezovsky’s assumed power has made him a target for the president’s enemies and a considerable political liability. Last week, Mr. Yeltsin dismissed Mr. Berezovksy from his post for exceeding the limits of his authority. Technically, only the heads of all the CIS states can fire the executive secretary, but it does not look as if Mr. Berezovsky had much support.
This is not the first time that the two allies have crossed swords. Mr. Yeltsin fired Mr. Berezovsky from his previous position as deputy secretary of the Russian security council in 1997. This time, however, the force behind the ouster is thought to be Mr. Primakov, who has been waging his own war with Mr. Berezovsky. Since becoming prime minister, he has been slowly accumulating power, putting allies in positions of authority and, some say, preparing a run for the presidency when Mr. Yeltsin’s term expires. (Mr. Primakov denies any such aspirations.)
In the curious dance of Kremlin politics, the move against Mr. Berezovsky could presage a similar strike against the prime minister. The one certainty in Moscow these days is that Mr. Yeltsin will not tolerate a subordinate who seems too powerful or independent. Dismissing Mr. Berezovksy may be justified on its own terms, but by shedding one liability he can then trim Mr. Primakov down to size.
The problem is that the insecurity Mr. Yeltsin likes to see among his subordinates is not conducive to solving Russia’s problems. The economy continues its slide. Gross domestic product contracted 4.6 percent last year, inflation was 4 percent in February — an improvement over January’s 8.5 percent — and unemployment continues to climb. The ruble is at an all-time low, and foreign debt obligations of $4.6 billion are due next month, an amount that would exhaust the country’s foreign-exchange reserves if it were actually going to be paid.
Since Russia effectively defaulted on $40 billion of debt last August, it has alienated an ever-growing segment of the international lending community. Earlier this year, one of the country’s banks earned the dubious distinction of being the first Russian institution to default on a Eurobond. The government, too, has been playing a game of “chicken” with international bankers, virtually daring them to cut off funds. Mr. Primakov is betting that Russia is “too big to fail.”
The International Monetary Fund is calling his bluff. After the default, the IMF froze a $22 billion loan package agreed to last summer, claiming that the Moscow government has failed to implement reforms. The charges are accurate. The government is still unable to collect taxes, wages are not being paid, the banking system has collapsed and foreign assistance has an alarming tendency to disappear. Recent revelations about mismanagement of portions of Russia’s central bank reserves raise serious questions about who is in control of the country’s finances.
It is unlikely that Mr. Primakov is the man to set the country straight. His instincts are still those of the Soviet apparatchik he once was. Since taking office, he has done a remarkable job of prevaricating and avoiding hard choices. Fortunately for him — and unfortunately for the rest of the world — that may be exactly what Mr. Yeltsin wants. The president does not tolerate subordinates that outshine him, which could happen if a government tried to implement real change. He seems no more willing to accept the pain that real reform would assuredly bring. The bottom line? More muddle, more melodrama and no real progress.
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