Russian Elections: Spectre of uncertain succession returns

A transfer of power is unlikely to be a peaceful, orderly process, writes Tony Barber

Moscow - Boris Yeltsin's poor health, the focal point of interest for foreigners if not for Russians in yesterday's presidential election, raises questions as pertinent in post-Communist Russia as they were in Soviet times. How exactly does one Kremlin leader succeed another, and is there any guarantee that the transfer of power will take place smoothly?

On paper, the picture is clear. The Russian constitution, adopted in December 1993, states that in the event of the President's death, or incapacity to fulfil his duties, his job passes temporarily to the Prime Minister, currently Viktor Chernomyrdin. The Prime Minister is then obliged to call fresh presidential elections within three months.

In practice, there is no certainty that Russia would easily surmount the upheaval provoked by Mr Yeltsin's premature departure from office. The constitutional mechanisms that are in place have never been tested and may count for little against a centuries-old tradition of power struggles, often violent, that have accompanied the demise of a tsar or party chief.

Moreover, whereas the constitution is considered almost sacred by the political classes in a country such as the United States, there is no such devotion in Russia to a document that is widely seen as having been tailor-made for Mr Yeltsin. He drew up the constitution in the aftermath of the armed uprising in the Russian parliament building in October 1993. The extraordinary range of powers that it granted him at the expense of the legislature was designed to ensure that no one could mount a serious threat to his rule again.

The fragility of Russia's constitutional order was exposed shortly after the first round of the presidential election, on 16 June, when a cabal of hawks including the Defence Minister, the head of the former KGB and Mr Yeltsin's personal security chief were drummed out of the Kremlin on charges of trying to force the postponement of the election. Less than a month before that drama, Mr Yeltsin had raised doubts about his willingness to abide by constitutional procedures when he rejected a law passed by the Communist-dominated parliament that set out the process by which he would hand over power should he lose the election.

Many Russian political commentators believe that, despite insisting that the election should take place, Mr Yeltsin never intended to make a graceful exit from office if defeat loomed as a realistic prospect. Moscow has buzzed with rumours of a so-called "Plan B", according to which Mr Yeltsin would have declared a national emergency and stayed in power rather than vacate the Kremlin for Gennady Zyuganov, his Communist challenger.

Inevitably, the impression that the constitution is just a piece of paper to be altered, ignored or scrapped at will has fed through into the attitudes of many prominent Russian politicians. For no one is this more true than for Alexander Lebed, the outspoken former general whom Mr Yeltsin put in charge of national security, after Mr Lebed finished third in the election's first round.

Despite his lack of a genuine power base in Mr Yeltsin's obscure Kremlin power structures, Mr Lebed has not disguised his ambition to rule Russia as soon as possible.

He proposed last week that he should be given the post of vice-president, a job which was abolished in 1993 after its then incumbent, Alexander Rutskoi, took part in the armed revolt at the White House. Mr Lebed clearly sees himself as the heir-apparent, constitution or no constitution.

Other influential figures in Mr Yeltsin's entourage are likely to take a different view, especially since Mr Lebed has revealed in the past two weeks that his opinions are much more illiberal than he indicated during his election campaign.

Those who might resist a Lebed bid for power include not only reformists, such as Anatoly Chubais, one of Mr Yeltsin's top campaign strategists, but more centrist politicians with a taste for power and patronage, such as Mr Chernomyrdin.

Last July, when President Yeltsin suffered the first of his two heart attacks in 1995, Mr Lebed was a marginal political figure and Mr Chernomyrdin was the only plausible president-in-waiting. Now Mr Lebed holds centre stage.

If Mr Yeltsin's health continues to decline it is difficult to see how Russia can avoid yet another of its periodic clashes for power in the Kremlin.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

The super-rich now live in their own Elysium - they breathe better air, and eat better food, when they're not making beans on toast for their kids

The super-rich now live in their own Elysium

They breathe better air, eat better food, take better medicine
A generation of dropouts failed by colleges

Dropout generation failed by colleges

£800m a year wasted on students who quit courses before they graduate
Entering civilian life 'can be like going into the jungle' for returning soldiers

Homeless Veterans appeal

Entering civilian life can be like going into the jungle
Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

Fifty Shades of Grey director on bringing the hit to the screen
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch