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
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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.