Huw Richards on the Political Studies Association conference
BORIS Yeltsin's recent sacking of his government was spectacular and unexpected but fits logically into the pattern of events since he became president of Russia in 1991.
Neil Robinson, lecturer in Russian politics at Essex University, presented a paper Permanent Struggle to Rule? Boris Yeltsin and the Problems of State and Executive Authority in Russia at the Political Studies Association conference at Keele University last week.
He painted the Yeltsin years as a constant struggle to build up the powers and the institution of the presidency, punctuated by deals to ensure his survival and subsequent pushes to escape the constraints imposed by those deals.
Dr Robinson said: "These deals shored Yeltsin up in the short term but left him terribly vulnerable. They meant that structural reform was put on hold."
In sacking the government and replacing premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, his aim was to break the deal done with the banks late in his first term as president that had helped him win re-election in 1996. "The banks became extremely close to the government, with some of their representatives in ministries," he said.
"In 1995-96 this was particularly important as the money and support provided by the banks, which control much of the press and broadcasting in Russia, helped him win the presidential election after he had been a very long way behind in the polls. He is now trying to break this dependency."
A similar deal was struck with business interests following the defeat of parliament in the constitutional crisis of early 1993. "Yeltsin's economic reform programme ran into parliamentary and business opposition. While he got the constitutional settlement he wanted, he was effectively forced to accept a government dominated by economic lobbyists. That inevitably lacked a policy direction and when Yeltsin wanted to renew the reform process after the rouble crisis of 1994 he had to restructure the government."
Dr Robinson believed the recent sackings were Yeltsin's first bid to control the 2000 presidential elections. "With Chernomyrdin deprived of the patronage opportunities provided by the premiership, there is no obvious contender. Nobody is certain of their position, which undermines people potential candidates. Too little is known about Sergei Kiriyenko, Yeltsin's choice as prime minister, for him to be seriously considered yet."
It was unclear whether Yeltsin still cherished ambitions of another term in office. "Aside from whether he will survive that long, it is not clear whether the constitutional court would allow it," said Dr Robinson. "He might argue that he has only had one term under a post-communist constitution".
He suggested that popular images of "Tsar Boris" were only partly realistic. "He certainly has the arbitrariness and some of the flamboyance of the autocrat but his actual influence is very narrow. It is often unclear whether he carries any weight beyond the walls of the Kremlin or the Moscow Beltway."
Yeltsin has managed to build the institution of the presidency, which now has a large staff and budgets. But the lurches from deal to deal shows his weakness as Russia goes through the complex business of constructing a new state from the ruins of communism.
Yeltsin's personality has been a complicating factor: "He has a great love of the coup de theatre and the politics of gesture."
But Dr Robinson believed that the twin demands of state-building and survival have been more significant factors. "I think you would have seen this rather unpredictable pattern, swinging back and forth to survive, whoever was in charge," he said.
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