• ACI Russia

08/04/1998 06:00:58 FEATURE - Way open for Yeltsin foes if reforms fail

By Timothy Heritage

MOSCOW, Aug 4 (Reuters) - While President Boris Yeltsin and his young reform

team struggle to rescue Russia from financial crisis, his rivals are rubbing

their hands in glee.

Economic success is widely regarded as vital for Yeltsin to have even an

outside chance of victory if he decides to contest the presidential election due

in 2000. Signs of success would also be useful just to help him hold on to power

until then.

But the omens look bad for Yeltsin and his team of "radical reformers" if

his government's anti-crisis plan and a multi-billion-dollar international loan

package fail to lift Russia out of the rut of economic crisis.

"It's fair to say that the longer the crisis goes on, the worse the chances

are of the reformers staying in power," Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian

Science Foundation think-tank, told Reuters.

"The failure of their reforms would make it much more likely a more

authoritarian leader came to power in the next election."

Government officials say they are optimistic about economic recovery.

Foreign leaders are backing Yeltsin and Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko to the



If everything went badly wrong, the economic and political fallout would be

far-reaching. Yeltsin might limp to the end of his term but the chance of him

stepping down or being ousted, though slim now, would rise.

Most experts believe market reforms are now irreversible and that only the

pace and emphasis of the reforms would change under a new leader.

Although the West would be nervous about the departure of the man they

regard as the standard-bearer of reform, opinion polls suggest Russians are

ready for a change.

Yeltsin, 67, seems increasingly reliant on a narrow circle of aides, does

not have his own political party to back him and the huge public support he had

in the early 1990s has gone.

He has also lost the support of most of the tycoons known as "oligarchs" who

helped bankroll his election campaign in 1996.

"The decisive difference about the current situation is that today the

president is under a massive attack and pressure from people who yesterday were

his most reliable allies," said political analyst Andranik Migranyan.

"What are the aims of this group of oligarchs? To force the president to say

once and for all that he will not seek a third term...to force the president to

step aside and give the oligarchs a chance to approve a suitable candidate who

they think can win the 2000 election."


Most of the likely contenders to replace Yeltsin have outlined vague

economic plans and only the credentials of Viktor Chernomyrdin, sacked as prime

minister in March, are clear. He avoided radical steps as premier but oversaw

slow reforms.

The front-runners to be the next president are Moscow mayor Yuri Luzkhkov

and Alexander Lebed, a gruff reserve general and Yeltsin's former security


Both have been busy promoting themselves as the financial crisis rumbles on.

Luzhkov hosted the first World Youth Games to great fanfare in Moscow in July

and Lebed has taken every opportunity to snipe at Yeltsin and the government.

Luzhkov, 61, has a reputation as an efficient and tough manager. But his

commitment to genuine democracy and his knowledge of the economy have been


Lebed, 48, has forced himself back into the reckoning by being elected

governor of the vast, resource-rich Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia. He has no

economic experience and his commitment to market reforms seems vague.

"Luzhkov and Lebed are the strongest presidential candidates today. If

Luzhkov does not run, Chernomyrdin would have a slight chance," said political

analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov.

He ruled out Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a young reformer who is

closely associated with Yeltsin, becoming president in 2000.

Nemtsov's chances are tied closely to the fate of reforms. The longer they

take to produce tangible results for ordinary people, the faster his election

chances recede.

Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov leads opinion polls. But he is widely

thought unlikely to win outright in the first round of an election and most

opinion research indicates he could not win a two-candidate, second-round


Even so, the Communists dominate the lower house of parliament and further

economic decline would improve their chances of retaining their strong position

in the chamber in a parliamentary election due in December 1999.

Less clear is whether there could be a nationalist backlash.


Yeltsin has raised the spectre of fascism. But the mainstream nationalist

force, the Liberal Democratic Party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, seems on the

wane and gives no sign of trying to forge a "red-brown" coalition with the


Even so, some analysts and politicians say the failure to put Russia's

economy in order by the autumn or winter could have dire consequences.

Most rule out the danger of serious street clashes or civil war. But they

say there is a risk of major labour unrest which could put fierce pressure on

Yeltsin and Kiriyenko and perhaps make their positions untenable.

Kiriyenko's fate is entirely dependent on Yeltsin, who has the power to

dismiss him at any moment. The president's own days could also be numbered if

his economic reforms collapsed rapidly around him.

A Kremlin aide said in July that Yeltsin should state clearly now that he

will make way for a younger man in 2000. Another said he had told Yeltsin not to

run in 2000 -- and was promptly fired.

Some analysts say Yeltsin could be ousted if the situation deteriorated

significantly. The president seemed to acknowledge this possibility in July by

saying he would put down any attempt to unseat him.

"We have enough force to cut short any extremist plans to seize power," he


Few leaders give up power willingly and Yeltsin seems no exception. Former

Kremlin press secretary Vyacheslav Kostikov said after his dismissal that power

was Yeltsin's "ideology, his friend, his concubine, his mistress, his passion."

How he might be removed is unclear. Most defence experts say the armed

forces are too divided and disorganised to pull off a military coup. An

impeachment led by parliament is widely thought to have little chance of


One possible scenario is that strikes might cripple the country and he would

be forced by circumstances to step down. Another is that regional leaders and

parliamentarians join forces against him, perhaps with the military's vocal


Western leaders would be horrified. Ordinary Russians might see it


"The only silver lining would be that Yeltsin's demise would at least give

Russians some light at the end of the tunnel," Peter Reddaway, a professor of

political science, and research scholar Dmitri Glinski wrote in the Moscow Times


"New leaders would make a fresh start. This could hardly be worse for Russia

and would probably be better."

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