Kremlin antics give birth to art of Yeltsinology

Click to follow
The Independent Online
YOU could mistake it for the joys of spring, were Moscow not in its sordid between-seasons stage, when the streets are awash with a syrup of ice, mud and a winter's worth of litter. But it's there, all the same. A fizz of excitement. The capital is indulging in its favourite pursuit, a soap opera to rival any on television: Kremlinology is back in vogue, restored to respectability by the erratic behaviour of Boris Yeltsin.

Once again, just as under Soviet Communism, an army of fact-starved pundits, journalists, and diplomats is staring at the ruddy walls of the Kremlin, trying to make sense of the activities within. These days, however, there is a difference. In Soviet times - when the skill evolved - there were rules, understood by every journalist trying to extract news from a secretive autocratic state.

Observers concentrated on the fine details. They watched the order in which the Politburo's high and mighty lined up on Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square for the 7 November anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. They read the smallest paragraphs in Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper. "It was never a science, but it did assume a certain predictability. It did mean something," says Fred Weir, a Canadian journalist who has worked in Moscow for 12 years.

Today's reading of the runes requires a new approach. Speech is, broadly speaking, free. Ministers speak on television. So do party leaders, although they are hampered by their ineffectuality and lack of access to the core of power.

But the government remains a monolithic bureaucracy, in which most meaningful activity takes places beneath the surface. Despite the trappings of democracy, Russia is still largely autocratic, headed by a president who is no less mysterious than his predecessors. Behind the scenes, its masters are business tycoons, the mighty oil and gas lobbies, the "power" ministries who run the military and the security services. They, too, are opaque.

Today's clues reside in the particular newspapers and television stations which the moguls control. For example, to discover the views of the multi- millionaire Boris Berezovsky, one of the most influential forces behind the scenes, western journalists read Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

At the centre of the focus is Mr Yeltsin. Two weeks on, Kremlin watchers are still puzzling over his appointment of 35-year-old Sergei Kiriyenko as prime minister, after sacking Viktor Chernomyrdin and his cabinet. Mr Yeltsin's antics - from offering last year to cut his nuclear forces by a third to, briefly but unconstitutionally, appointing himself acting prime minister - only muddies the picture further.

"Before the basic presumption of Kremlinology is that there was a rational process going on behind the scenes," says John Helmer, a veteran Moscow- based journalist. "Today, we don't have that." The dark art of Kremlin watching is back. And it has a new name: Yeltsinology.