Expos of 'Old' Yeltsin Shows How Much Has Changed
Russian leader's ex-bodyguard promotes his book
For more than a year, Moscow's political circles have been eagerly waiting for the dirt-dishing memoirs of President Boris Yeltsin's former bodyguard and onetime closest buddy, Alexander Korzhakov.
Ever since he was unceremoniously ditched in June 1996, General Korzhakov has been teasing the Kremlin with thinly veiled threats to publish all the compromising material he had collected during the 11 years he spent at Mr. Yeltsin's side.
But as he previewed his soon-to-be-released book of memoirs here Aug. 12, Korzhakov sounded like a blast from a distant past. So radically has Yeltsin changed his image since his reelection last year that it is hard to imagine any of the threatened mud sticking.
The drunken autocrat veering from buffoonery to dictatorial rage whom Korzhakov portrays was the creature of another set of handlers - Korzhakov among them. Today's kinder, gentler president has surrounded himself with a new group of aides with a subtler approach.
Korzhakov himself acknowledges the change, almost wistfully. "As for Boris Yeltsin, it's a complete divorce for me," he told reporters as he presented his book, "Boris Yeltsin, from Dawn to Dusk." "He is a different person."
Korzhakov was the KGB man assigned to Yeltsin's security back in 1985, before Yeltsin was made a candidate member of the Soviet Politburo. Following his boss into the political wilderness when Yeltsin fell out with Mikhail Gorbachev, Korzhakov became the future Russian leader's drinking partner, closest confidante, and influential adviser.
But as a former KGB officer, he has let it be known, he never lost his nose for kompromat - the Soviet term for "compromising material" - that is still the currency of Russian politics.
"If anyone wants to take me to court" to challenge allegations in the book, "I am ready for them," Korzhakov declared Aug. 12. "But I promise them that the investigation will not be secret, and that I can provide tapes and computer disks that I took with me. That is a warning."
IN a political culture where corruption, bribery, and blackmail are stock in trade, a secret policeman at the hub of power could amass a great deal of clout through his knowledge of embarrassing incidents. And Korzhakov exploited his shadowy reputation to the full.
Indeed, he is still doing so, hawking his book at press conferences, excerpting it in foreign newspapers before publication, and claiming that intermediaries acting for the Kremlin offered him $5 million not to publish these memoirs.
But the stories he tells - of a drunken Yeltsin seizing the baton to conduct a police band during a visit to Berlin in 1994, of a sick Yeltsin too unpresentable to get off his plane to meet the Irish prime minister a month later - are well-known stories about a well-known man.
Since recovering from surgery last autumn, Yeltsin has allowed his younger daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, to take him in hand as his image adviser.
Working in tandem with the new political team Yeltsin put in place after his reelection, Ms. Dyachenko has been key to presenting a new-style president with softer edges. If yesterday's Yeltsin could easily be imagined spending vodka-soaked nights with his old Communist Party buddies, today's Yeltsin is more likely to be spending time with his family.
Gone too are the hard-liners - grouped in the shadowy "party of war" - who captured Yeltsin's ear in the run-up to the war in Chechnya. Men like Korzhakov himself, former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, and other hawks were swept from office in a purge just before last year's election.
Instead, the Kremlin tone today is set by a younger crowd with good ties to the West, and good ties as well with the powerful bankers who financed Yeltsin's re-election campaign. It was they, led by Anatoly Chubais - now first deputy prime minister and widely seen as the power behind the current government - who engineered Korzhakov's dismissal.
The bodyguard's book may have some interesting revelations to make about that incident, when Korzhakov's security men detained two of Mr. Chubais's aides as they left a government building with $500,000 that they could not account for. Chubais portrayed the event as an incipient coup d'etat, and the old guard around Korzhakov was sacked en masse.
But whatever Korzhakov writes, his revelations are unlikely to win much play in the newspapers, which are now almost all owned by bankers allied with Chubais and his colleagues.
Yeltsin may be pained by some of the things he reads in his old friend's memoirs, but at least he is still president. Korzhakov, as he knows only too well, is yesterday's man.