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Uncertainty and Hope Mark Yeltsin's Game

The stunning news of Boris Yeltsin's Cabinet firing this week was no surprise to those who know the character of the aging Russian president. It was the logical reaction of a man who doesn't like his power challenged - even if only by someone's intentions to run for the presidency in 2000.

Victor Chernomyrdin survived as Prime Minister for so long because he was always loyal to the president and never flaunted political ambition beyond his position as the second-ranking Russian statesman.

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Mr. Yeltsin appreciated this loyalty and seriously regarded Mr. Chernomyrdin as his most probable successor. However, for Yeltsin the problem of his successor is purely academic, relegated to some distant future - sometime in 2000, and possibly later because the president keeps toying with the notion of a third term through constitutional loopholes.

But for many influential Russians, the succession problem isn't academic. For them it is a matter of life and death.

The incestuous relationship of power and money in this country is well known. Last week the business magazine, Expert, published two rows of photographs of Russia's 10 most influential politicians and 10 most influential businessmen. The lists were almost identical.

Our robber barons owe their enormous fortunes not to their entrepreneurial skills but exclusively to their connections in the corridors of power - and consequently to their ability to channel the state budget financial flows to their private companies. So they can't help being preoccupied with the problem of succession. It's critical to them that the presidential post falls to someone who will guarantee their fortunes, their positions of power, their freedom, and their personal security.

A group of these oligarchs proclaimed publically last month that their handpicked successor to Boris Yeltsin was Chernomyrdin. These Russian tycoons - in cahoots with many people from the Yeltsin administration, and even some members of Yeltsin's family - were involved in the "understanding" about succession.

This business group, often spoken for by Boris Berezovsky, the oil and media tycoon and former national security adviser to Yeltsin, was so confident of its influence within Yeltsin's inner circle that it decided Yeltsin himself could be manipulated.

Mr. Berezovsky, for example, boldly bragged to the Financial Times in 1996 that he and his colleagues had essentially bought Yeltsin's re-election with more than $1 billion spent on his campaign. And Berezovsky, through his television and newspaper outlets, had publicly recommended Yeltsin not interfere with the already-accomplished process of selecting his successor.

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"The country needs a much cheaper president," editiorialized the Berezovsky-owned Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily on Feb. 6.

It just was too much for the old man, who hasn't lost his famous instinct for power. Yeltsin was already planning Chernomyrdin's firing.

Chernomyrdin's fatal mistake was not to protest publicly against the oligarchs' growing claims on his political future.

BEREZOVSKY got wind of Yeltsin's plan, and just hours before Yeltsin announced the dismissal, Berezovksy disavowed his support for Chernomyrdin and said the uncharismatic prime minister is unelectable. Chernomyrdin was seduced and abandoned.

So much for the power elite. What about the country?

Let's give Yeltsin once again the benefit of the doubt. While preserving his own place as master of the country, he inadvertently saves Russia from at least this latest attempt by the oligarchs to appoint the next president behind the backs of the people. On the other hand, the political crisis opens a new period of uncertainty.

But the uncertainty also brings hope. Perhaps Yeltsin's new appointments will bring our nation's best and brightest to the Kremlin.

* Andrei Piontkowsky is director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow.

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