Focus: No way to run a country

Boris Yeltsin has avoided impeachment but he is a spent force who has sacrificed his people's well-being to his own career

Mikhail Gorbachev, who has an acid tongue, once accused Boris Yeltsin of having a "talent for fiction". He was referring to his arch- enemy's habit of exaggerating his feats, casting himself as a Russian mythic hero. Last week's events have given a new meaning to his words.

Mr Yeltsin's decision to fire his prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, in the midst of the Kosovo crisis and on the eve of parliament's attempt to impeach him, belongs to an unreal plot scripted by a man who has discarded his nation's broader interests in favour of clannish in-fighting.

Western politicians tirelessly argue that it is policy, not personality, that matters. In Russia, the reverse is true. Personality has become the defining issue - that of one increasingly bizarre, ill and remote man who has lost the capacity to rule effectively.

It pays to weigh up the gains and losses of the president's latest decision, his third change of government in 14 months. In firing Mr Primakov, Mr Yeltsin got rid of a man whom he saw as a threat to his own authority. The premier had carefully forged a separate power base of his own, winning respect from a broad spectrum of the political elite.

In a mere eight months Mr Primakov became the most trusted politician in Russia. Though he denied any interest in the job, he was well placed to win next year's presidential election. Russians seemed to want a coalition builder, who had shown he was capable of bringing a measured calm after years of painful collapse in which the government became unable to fulfil even the most basic functions.

Success proved fatal. That his popularity and influence irked the president was evident in the petty manner in which Mr Yeltsin dealt with him. He humiliated him on TV, with a prime-time ticking-off about his handling of the media. Kremlin aides increasingly undermined the premier, circulating rumours that he was soon to be fired.

True, genuine policy differences between the two men may have played a part. This year Mr Yeltsin used his state-of-the-nation address to warn of the return of centralisation, and a revanche. He disliked his premier's bridge-building with the Communists, his own sworn enemies. He resented the premier's talk of reining in the 89 regions and republics.

But ideology has long been overshadowed in the Yeltsin era by down-and- dirty politics, the jealous business of protecting power and financial fortunes. Boris Yeltsin' s real vision - his protection of free speech, the suspension of capital punishment - has too often been overwhelmed by his ruthless apparatchik's instinct, bred in three decades of party service, for in-fighting.

It is also a fair guess that the Kremlin inner circle will now hope for a little less attention from prosecutors, who have been sniffing out corruption in high places. Top of their target list was the magnate Boris Berezovsky, a friend of Mr Yeltsin's younger daughter, Tatyana, and one of a handful of big businessmen who bankrolled Mr Yeltsin's last election campaign. The odds now favour their being left untouched. When the prosecutor general's office issued a warrant for the financier's arrest, Sergei Stepashin - then interior minister, now acting prime minister - said he would ignore it.

Finally, Mr Yeltsin has gained ground in his running battle with the Duma, which yesterday failed to raise the two-thirds vote needed to pass five impeachment charges. The collapse of the impeachment drive is an embarrassment to his Communist-led opponents, who have been threatening Mr Yeltsin for months. But, even if it had passed, it was never going to go far since the 1993 constitution makes it extremely tough to impeach a Russian president. His war with parliament now shifts to the confirmation of Mr Stepashin as premier, which goes before the house on Wednesday. More alarmist voices in Moscow believe that the house will reject the nomination three times, causing its own dissolution. This would enable Mr Yeltsin to impose his own choice of prime minister on the country - without parliamentary approval - and rule by decree until the next elections.

Those are the gains. An audit of losses that flow from this week's upheavals produces a far longer and weightier list.

As he shoved him out of the door, Mr Yeltsin accused the premier of failing to do enough for Russia's economy. But by firing the government Mr Yeltsin has deepened the country's paralysis, engulfing his ministers in a slugging match when the attention is needed to stall the path to further economic decline.

He has almost certainly dealt a death blow to a fragile $7.5bn loan programme drawn up with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The package depends on the passage of a stack of economic measures through the now even more hostile and unco-operative Duma.

Abroad, it has become far harder for Russia to play a constructive role in the Kosovo crisis. Foreign policy in an environment in which the Kremlin is embroiled in a domestic trench war is hard enough. The issue could easily now become a hostage to domestic politics - restricting Russia's flexibility in the negotiating process, and damaging its usefulness as a conduit to Belgrade.

And, in the long term, there is another price to pay. Every time Boris Yeltsin throws out a rival, contempt for the political process among ordinary Russians deepens still further. "The only salvation for normal people who have for several years been made to watch this senseless pulling of the rope from one side to another is to try and stay out of these politicians' squabbles," said an embittered editorial in a Moscow paper on Thursday. "Let them fight alone. They are not worth it."

Polls suggest that the public see their rulers as corrupt, self-interested and ineffective; it is Russia's tragedy that less than a decade after the end of Soviet Communism, any hopes of a true, balanced democracy have withered into utter cynicism.

Mr Yeltsin - once the darling of the West, on whom billions of IMF dollars have been lavished - is now little more than an empty shell. He has hardly any dependable support. His backers consist of unpopular market economists, who hated Mr Primakov and see his firing as a swing of the pendulum towards their camp. But apart from some easily bought hard-line nationalists, a scattering of regional leaders, and business interests fearful that a new leader might wish to probe the murky sources of their riches, they are the president's only friends.

No longer can the president expect the support of his heavily demoralised and impoverished army, should he need to turn to it as he did in 1993 when he bombed parliament, and in Chechnya the following year. Mr Stepashin has a background in the security services and the mighty interior ministry, but their loyalty to the president is also unlikely to run deep.

With political weakness comes physical frailty. Mr Yeltsin has been repeatedly ill and befuddled, barely able to sign his name or walk. He may well stagger on to the end of his term in July next year, preserved by his survival instincts and the ineffectiveness of opponents who are divided and distracted by their own venal interests.

But this is no way to run a country, and the 146 million Russians - the great silent majority who have no perks, no huge country houses, no yachts on the French Riviera or Swiss bank accounts - will be the ones who pay the price.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive / Marketing Research Executive

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is the UK's leading...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager / Section Manager - Airport Security

    £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a critical role within the secur...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45-55k

    £20000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is an established, ...

    Recruitment Genius: E-Commerce Manager - Fashion Accessories

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn