Tired, friendless and trapped: Struggling to form a government, President Yeltsin has lost his way, says Andrew Higgins

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - A fortnight before Russia's parliamentary elections, Boris Yeltsin called party leaders to the Kremlin for a lecture. Also summoned were a television crew and photographers. Their handiwork would show Mr Yeltsin at the head of a long wooden conference table. Only two other figures were clearly visible in official pictures. One was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, sitting to Mr Yeltsin's right. The other was Yegor Gaidar, sitting to his left.

Kremlinology is not what it used to be. But Mr Yeltsin has been around long enough to remember the basics. He wanted to send a message. All the fuzzy edges - 10 other political leaders representing a rainbow of ideological shades - vanished, cropped from the frame or obscured (at least no air-brushing now). The choice for Russia was stark. It was Mr Gaidar: pro-Western, liberal and committed to radical market reform. Or Mr Zhirinovsky: anti-Western, probably anti- market and almost certainly mad.

We now know what Russia decided. The seating plan at the Kremlin is being rearranged. Mr Gaidar, among others, has lost his chair. Mr Zhirinovsky, for his part, has not yet been invited into the government - he was also kept off the guest list for President Clinton's reception - but he does control more than 60 seats in the state Duma - the parliament - and, escorted by a phalanx of bodyguards, struts around as if he owned it.

The central figure in the Kremlin's carefully framed pre-election portrait has not moved. Boris Yeltsin is still there. On paper he is more secure than ever, thanks to a new constitution. And on this point there rested all along a precarious sliver of accord between the two extremes - and a cunning but treacherous emergency escape route for Mr Yeltsin. For all their differences, Mr Gaidar and Mr Zhirinovsky both championed the idea of a strong presidential republic.

The West, particularly the United States, has staked its policy towards Russia on a single calculation: 'Yeltsin is by far the best exponent of democracy and progress, and therefore the path to stability,' says the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. It is less a conviction than a prayer. Russia has seldom seemed less stable.

Mr Yeltsin remains at the head of the table, but is wobbling. What, beyond the principle of a strong executive, does he stand for? Old cronies - quirky, often intolerant, but possessing a clear set of ideas about the free market and the need for a strong democracy based on parties rather than personalities - have been squeezed out. Mikhail Poltoranin, once Mr Yeltsin's loudest cheerleaders, now boos from the sidelines. Gennady Burbulis, long known as the ideologue of democratic reform, has broken ranks - or rather been ejected from the inner circle: 'I worry that the president may find himself isolated from the people who really support change in Russia.'

Russia's constitution, approved by a narrow margin in a referendum held alongside the legislative poll, allows Mr Yeltsin to appoint whoever he likes as prime minister and thus dictate the choice of ministers, regardless of the composition of parliament. However, Mr Yeltsin has spent the best part of this week cloistered with Viktor Chernomyrdin, nominally his servant, but in reality a power broker in his own right, trying to decide who should run the country. The reality is that Mr Yeltsin is trapped. He has the security forces, the army and, once a new decree is implemented, the media under his supervision. But forming anything akin to a coherent government has proved almost impossible.

The harsh view is that of Stanislav Govorukhin, a film director, passionate anti-Communist turned deeply morose nationalist: 'The fish begins to rot from the head.' He describes Mr Yeltsin as 'like Brezhnev in the final years'. More kind is Anatoly Shabad, also an MP and one of a dwindling band of Yeltsinites still ready to give the benefit of the doubt: 'Yeltsin acts within what is possible. The problem is that no one really knows any more what is possible.'

The guest list drawn up by the Kremlin for a 14-course banquet featuring moose-lips for Mr Clinton illustrates what Mr Yeltsin considers possible - perhaps even desirable. It was an intimate occasion with only six Russians and six Americans. The Russians were Mr Yeltsin, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, First Deputy Premier Oleg Soskovets, Defence Minister Pavel Grachev, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and Viktor Ilyukhin, gatekeeper to Mr Yeltsin's private office. Russian industry is well represented, so too the old apparat and the military.

'I have not seen him for a long time but I think Yeltsin has let down his guard, lost his way,' says Gleb Yakunin, a veteran campaigner from the old days of Democratic Russia, the now splintered, all but extinct umbrella group that helped Mr Yeltsin to win the presidency in 1991. 'The situation is very dangerous. He is far too, let's say, pluralistic in his views.' Old enemies say much the same. The Supreme Soviet has been replaced by a state Duma. The venue for debate has been moved 100 yards or so from the White House to the old Comecon building. Many of the old faces are back. And many of the new ones are still worse. Sergei Baburin, one of Mr Yeltsin's most coherent critics, came back to Moscow from Omsk shorn of his trademark, a Lenin-style goatee, but not of his hostility towards Mr Yeltsin. He gloats: 'Yeltsin is changing. Rather, Yeltsin is being changed.'

It will not be the first time. Nor, if Mr Yeltsin's conversion from Communism is any guide, will it be easy. In his autobiography, Against the Grain, Mr Yeltsin dates his disenchantment with the party to his days as first secretary of Sverdlovsk province. 'I caught myself giving way to a feeling of wariness, of being up a blind alley.' In a lengthy and intimate television interview after the bloodshed of 3-4 October last year, Mr Yeltsin elaborated further on why he ditched Communism: 'It was very difficult. It was not that I suddenly saw the light . . . I experienced an inner struggle. Many sleepless nights before and after. It was a wrenching process.'

Another wrenching process seems well under way. Many long- time supporters have fallen away. Few accuse Mr Yeltsin of cynical opportunism. Most consider him just too tired and too remote. Mr Gaidar has gone. Boris Fedorov, the Finance Minister, may have agreed to join the new government, but with apparent reluctance.

Mr Yeltsin's trust in radical free- market policies involved a leap of faith. It was not a deep personal conviction. 'The president is not an economist,' said Mr Gaidar, betraying a hint of the arrogance that helped to doom his cause. 'He has common sense in economic matters.' And, at least as far as most Russian voters are concerned, and Mr Yeltsin too, common sense now demands some sort of change.

Most dispirited of all are Mr Yeltsin's supporters from his days in the wilderness. When she resigned this week as Social Security Minister, Ella Pamfilova sounded much the same as Mr Yeltsin did when, still the scourge of corruption and privilege, he stormed out of Mikhail Gorbachev's politburo in 1987. 'You can endlessly withstand being spat upon and humiliated . . . but only on the condition that you have the hope you can do something, you can change something. When that hope disappears and you understand that nothing depends on you . . . this makes no sense whatsover.'

Mrs Pamfilova was outraged that Mr Yeltsin's administration could find only 'crumbs' for social security while ordering parquet floor from Switzerland for a new dollars 500m parliamentary centre. (The old and lavishly refurbished legislature, the White House, has been commandeered by the cabinet.) 'This step is not an ultimatum - it is an act of despair.' Mr Yeltsin might recall his own resignation letter to Mr Gorbachev: 'I am an awkward person, and I know it.'