The Struggle for the Kremlin

In January most people thought President Boris Yeltsin could not win a free election. Their attitude was reflected in a story that made the rounds in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Yeltsin,it went, was taking an evening stroll across an open field near his dacha and stumbled on an old bottle. He picked it up, pulled the cork, and out jumped a jinni, who bowed to him and said, “Thank you for releasing me from 3,000 years of captivity! In gratitude, I will grant you a wish.”

Let Russia become a civilized country, with all its citizens hard-working and prosperous,” Yeltsin requested.

Look,” the jinni replied, “I have a lot of power, but some things even I can’t do. Don’t you have another wish that is a little more practical?”

All right,” said Yeltsin, “just see to it that I win re-election this year.”

The jinni paused, rolled his eyes, then asked, “Now what was that first wish again?”

Reasons for the jinni’s skepticism were obvious. In December, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation had won a plurality of seats in the State Duma and had attracted enough support in that chamber to elect one of its members, Gennady Seleznev, as Speaker. Opinion polls showed Yeltsin in seventh place among the likely contenders for the presidency, far behind front-runner Gennady Zyuganov. Throughout the fall and early winter Yeltsin had been largely absent from public view, hospitalized for a heart condition, then recuperating. His ability to conduct a vigorous campaign seemed seriously in question.

In view of these conditions, many doubted that elections would be held at all. Yeltsin, and particularly his cronies—usually called the “party of power” or, after the invasion of Chechnya, the “war party”—whose influence had seemed dominant for the past eighteen months or so, could not afford to leave office, they reasoned, since any successor government would be likely to bring them to account on various charges of malfeasance. Therefore, every effort would be made to keep Yeltsin—and with him the “party of power”—in office without an election. Rumors circulated about possible strategies for delaying the election, including a declaration of federation with Belarus, which would allow Yeltsin to argue that the new constitutional arrangement superseded the existing Russian constitution; postponement of the elections by presidential decree on grounds that a national emergency existed; or a power-sharing deal with the Communists.

Alexander Korzhakov, Yeltsin’s longtime bodyguard, close personal friend, and chief of presidential security, contributed to the impression that some way would be found for Yeltsin to stay in office without submitting to a vote. Korzhakov was periodically quoted as believing that Russian society was too volatile to tolerate orderly elections this year.

In January and February, conventional political wisdom in Moscow incorporated two convictions: (1) that elections, if held at all, would likely be a sham; and (2) that, though Yeltsin was unlikely to go quietly, it would not make much difference to the country if …

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Letters

Struggle for the Kremlin’: An Exchange September 19, 1996