Grey cardinal who hovers at Yeltsin's side

Former political exile now calling shots in Russia, writes Phil Reeves reports
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The Independent Online
Sour grapes there may have been aplenty, but the attack on Boris Yeltsin and his inner circle yesterday by his former chief-of-staff will have struck a nerve, not least because the official raised an issue that is now occupying centre-stage in Russian politics: the role of the so- called grey cardinal, the quiet dealmaker behind the Kremlin throne, Anatoly Chubais.

In a sharply worded interview published by the respected Komsomolskaya Pravda, Nikolai Yegorov yesterday added his voice to the chorus of complaining voices which now claim that the ill and ageing Mr Yeltsin has "lost touch with reality", and that power in the land now resides largely with Mr Chubais.

Such is his reputed clout that the Kremlin's upper echelons are now only occupied by the 41-year-old Mr Chubais and his associates, said Mr Yegorov, who described the present chief-of-staff as a man who wanted to mould Russia "like putty", while Mr Yeltsin remains largely out of view, preparing for heart bypass surgery next month.

Even if Mr Yegorov is overstating his case, no one in Russia disputes that Mr Chubais has become enormously influential, after executing a swift political comeback. Only nine months ago, he seemed doomed to political exile, after being dumped as Russia's privatisation minister. But he successfully managed Mr Yeltsin's re-election campaign, and was rewarded with a job as gatekeeper to the President himself.

Mr Chubais also managed, en route, to secure the sacking of Mr Yeltsin's close friend, the head of the presidential guard, General Alexander Korzhakov, and the hard-line chief of the security services, Mikhail Barsukov. Last week, he masterminded the ousting of security chief Alexander Lebed,who was openly parading his presidential ambitions. There are no tougher opponents in Russia.

Mr Chubais - who today completes his first 100 days in office - already overshadows the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. He has control of the Kremlin's press service and personnel. He can draft legislation. He decides who meets the President, and when.

The chief-of-staff has secured his position by building a close alliance with Tatyana Dyachenko, Mr Yeltsin's younger daughter. It is widely believed that she and Mr Chubais are the only two non-medical people with daily access to the President.

Mr Chubais's new powers are causing concern, not least because he appears to be wielding unusual influence over the once independent Russian television company NTV - which has lately come to resemble a tool of the Chubais camp in the Kremlin.

This week, Mr Yeltsin established a four-man council to oversee decisions during his illness. It includes Mr Chubais and Mr Chernomyrdin. But this is unlikely to end claims that Mr Chubais and Tatyana are running what amounts to a regency.

"Unfortunately it would seem that the institution is making the man," wrote the pro-reform Moscow Times yesterday. "It makes little sense to talk about Chubais as a force for democracy when his position is undefined in its constitutional scope and furthered by circumventing the legislative process."