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Travails Of The New Tsar

Neither President Yeltsin nor the Russian economy are in good health. Then, there's Chechnya.

Travails Of The New Tsar
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BRILLIANT sun shone over Moscow on August 9. As the Spass-kaya (Saviour) Tower clock at the Kremlin chimed noon, Boris Yeltsin walked into the Congress Hall—packed with 3,000 dignitaries from Russia and ex-USSR republics—to be formally inaugurated as President for a second term. Outside, the city was relaxed, freshened up by paint and the absence of garbage dumps along highways, all removed to fit the festive atmosphere.

The event was historic for more than one reason. This was the first time Russia's top office was taken by a person elected by general suffrage. While Yeltsin had been already popularly elected as head of state in 1991, Russia at that time was not fully independent, but a republic within the USSR.

To mark the event, Inauguration Commission members had even searched the archives for details of traditional coronation rituals of Russian tsars which could have been useful. After the brief introductory word by Central Electoral Commission chief Nikolay Ryabov, a pale, frail-looking Yeltsin appeared on a stage bedecked with flower arrangements in red, white and blue and with the symbol of Russian statehood, the two-headed eagle, suspended over it. He shuffled slowly towards Ryabov, who handed him the Commission's certificate of his election as well as 'the President's ID card'.

With his right hand on a special edition of the Constitution, Yeltsin in halting words took the oath of allegiance. Yeltsin, 65, suffered two mild heart attacks last year, though aides contend he's just suffering from "colossal weariness" brought on by the campaign. Though he spoke for less than a minute, he appeared short of breath and at times slurred his speech. The newly-sworn in President also received a 'For Merits before Motherland' Order, Ist class, which Izvestia compared to a "crown orb and sceptre rolled into one." Then, the Spassky Tower carillon, for the first time since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, played not the Internationale but the 19th century Russian composer Fyodor Glinka's classical Patriotic Song , new Russia's official anthem.

But the 17-minute ceremony wasn't the rousing event it was expected to be. It raised more doubts about whether Yeltsin would be able to perform his duties rather than strengthening confidence in his second four-year team. Significantly, no foreign press was admitted to the hall, and Yeltsin didn't give a post-oath speech.

Besides, the ceremony was overshadowed by events far from Moscow. While the Kremlin guns saluted the President, other guns were booming in breakaway Chechnya, where rebels and federal troops were engaged in a fierce battle for capital Grozny. Swearing-in day saw a crucial surprise offensive on the city by the rebels. A top Russian officer admitted to Interfax news agency that the situation in Grozny, captured from the rebels 18 months ago, was "totally out of control". The guerillas also managed to capture a Russian military HQ in Chechnya's second town of Gudermes and had "notable success" in a third town, Argun. According to the Russian military command, at least 120 soldiers were killed and another 400 injured since fighting resumed three days before the inauguration. Chechen sources reported a massacre of civilians at Koso-molskoye village in north-east Chechnya the evening before the swearing-in.

Thus, Yeltsin announced his first day as President as one of national mourning. "Federals (troops) are showing themselves to be totally incapable of defending a single Chechen city under their control," said daily Segodnya Moskovsky Komsomolets , which has the largest circulation in Russia. It even labelled August 9 as the day of "the pompous celebration of national shame". At this crucial moment, the Kremlin announced that Yeltsin was taking a two-month holiday "to recover" from the gru-elling election campaign.

His performance at the ceremony too fuelled speculation. "He looked dreadful," noted Sergei Markov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. "I don't think he will live out his second term".

The Opposition immediately seized this opportunity to launch fresh attacks. "Yeltsin is in no state to work", Communist leader Gennadi Zuyganov, who lost to Yeltsin in the runoffs, told journalists at the ceremony. Opposition parliamentarian Stanislav Govorukhin was even more definite. "Until now, they've been showing only two or three seconds of footage of what is a sick man on TV. I ask myself: how long can he be in charge?" Govorukhin said.

There is also speculation over who will run the country during Yeltsin's absence. Anatoly Chubais—liberal economist, privatisation chief and now the President's chief of staff—seems to be walking off with the spoils. "Chubais, sacked from the government just seven months ago, has found himself a key position of power. The signs emerging from the Kremlin are that he is hungrily exploiting that power," Christian Lowe wrote in The Moscow Tribune .

Chubais denies he is creating a "parallel government" to rival that of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. That, he told the press, would lead to "complete chaos". What makes the denial hard to swallow is the appointment of leading economists Alexander Kazakov, former head of the State Property Committee, and Maxim Boiko, former director of the Russian Center of Privatisation, under Chubais.

As for Chernomyrdin, his cabinet resigned on August 10. Yeltsin asked Parliament to reconfirm Chernomyrdin, with the majority of deputies backing him. "We have no other person. Mr Chernomyrdin is not the worst," said Vladimir Semago, a moderate Communist MP. Under the Russian Constitution, Parliament must confirm the Prime Minister in office when a new

President is inaugurated. Otherwise, it does not have much say in the day-to-day administration. A large degree of the new laws were brought in by Yeltsin as Presidential decrees, bypassing the legislature.

The third point in the power triangle under Yeltsin is General Alexander Lebed, the influential Security Council Chief who oversees defence. Co-opted into the presidential team after he came third in the first round of elections, Lebed is seen as a tough 'law and order' person, seeking wider powers, including those over the overall economic policy. Yet, experts note, it's doubtful that in Yeltsin's system of 'checks and balances' he will be able to push both Chubais and Chernomyrdin in the shadows.

Yeltsin's team is obviously going to give priority to Chechnya and the economy, still suffering from a budget deficit, low tax receipts and miners' strikes. There are other issues too—like Russia's future. Yeltsin has asked his advisers to define and formulate "what idea, what ideology is the main for Russia". The blueprints of the ideology are to be ready within a year.

Latest public surveys reveal that most Russians favour the "new patriotism" with an authoritarian tint, as displayed at the Kremlin ceremony. "If the democrats don't offer a national idea to the people, it will be done by the communists again," says Alexei Kiva, research fellow with the Institute of Oriental Studies. "Take de Gaulle, who took over France when its old national idea didn't work. His problems were like those of Yeltsin. The parliamentary republic, reproducing countless cabinet crises, had become a spent force. De Gaulle's idea, which emphasised the 'national character' of the French State and its glory, worked."

Others strike a note of caution. "Those who watched the emergence of new national states know that the 'national idea' reeks of turmoil and blood. The supremacy of one ideology, which has the state as the source, is destructive for the state itself," says Izvestia .

The "great power" rhetoric was a part of Yeltsin's vocabulary even before the poll. He took recourse to this as the communists blamed him for "bowing before the West" on Bosnia and the question of NATO's eastward expansion. The new tough line was also demonstrated when Russia didn't fall in line with the West on sensitive foreign policy issues like the sale of nuclear technology to Iran, growing cooperation with 'pariah' states and attempts to compete with the US in regional peacemaking in West Asia.

There's no sign of a foreign policy revamp now. The latest proof came on August 6, when the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a strongly-worded statement calling the Helms-Burton law and the recent law against foreign companies dealing with Iran and Libya "inadmissible" and "grossly violating the international law".

Although the 'ideology' issue will surely lead to heated debates, the power triangle promises to work in classic Yeltsin style, with different factions ranged against each other so that nobody can challenge the President himself. Says Alexei Pushkov, head political analyst with ORT Russian Channel I: "This system of checks and balances precludes any sharp policy turns, unless the President wants it himself".

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