08/05/1998 08:38:25 Yeltsin's rivals
FEATURE - Way open for Yeltsin foes if reforms fail
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (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
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
YELTSIN LOOKS ISOLATED, POLLS SHOW RUSSIANS WANT CHANGE
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."
MAIN RIVALS VAGUE ON ECONOMIC POLICY
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
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
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.
THREAT FROM WORKERS' PROTESTS
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."