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The Long Shadow of Czar Boris

Who really controls Russia — and what part?

April 9, 2001

Who really controls Russia — and what part?

Russia, lest we forget, got its Christianity by way of Byzantium. Then, for the past 500 years, Russia’s major policy aim was to annex Constantinople — which would soon become Istanbul — and to control the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. However, Russia ultimately failed to take physical control of the Byzantine Empire.

This bit of history is useful to recall because today’s Russia certainly can lay the claim to Byzantium’s political legacy today. Nowhere is it more true than with regard to the sophisticated intrigues that are constantly woven within the Kremlin. They would probably make many a Byzantine emperor proud.

It is well known that Vladimir Putin’s appointment as Prime Minister in August 1999 was part of a deal with President Yeltsin. Putin was plucked from obscurity and elevated to the most important job in the land. Before him, Boris Yeltsin had toyed with a couple of different premiers, looking for one with the staying power to hold on to the job, yet one who would not to go after Yeltsin and his immediate entourage, known in Russia as “The Family.”

Putin became heir apparent, and his first act after winning the presidency was to guarantee immunity to his mentor.

Many Russians want to see “The Family” removed from their position of undue political influence — and prosecuted for allegedly misappropriating millions in state funds and collecting millions more in bribes and kickbacks. But Putin, who is otherwise highly sensitive to public opinion, has steadfastly stuck to his end of the bargain, which is to do nothing about all this.

But, of course, Yeltsin and his cohorts are not so naïve as to rely solely on the word of honor of an ex-KGB officer. People in the know suspect that “the Family” has some really bad kompromat — the Russian word for compromising or damaging material — implicating Putin. That kompromat would guarantee that he doesn’t go back on his promises.

Still, former President Yeltsin is taking no chances. A highly knowledgeable source we have heard from says that Yeltsin calls the President couple of times a day to make sure things are not getting out of control. According to another version, Putin himself regularly visits the ailing elderly statesman to report.

One telltale sign is that the young president, while energetically taking the reins in most areas of foreign policy and domestic politics, has unexpectedly shied away from economic management. It is true that the man does not know too much about this subject, which at the same time is of pivotal importance for Russia’s future.

Yet, in the past, he had promised to curb the power of Russia’s rich oligarchs — and even to eliminate them as a class. But apart from going after two magnates who in his view were particularly annoying, Putin allowed other industrial, commodities and banking groups to solidify their political positions.

Economic reforms have been glaringly absent, too, even when measured against the half-hearted efforts pursued by Russia’s previous governments. A promised sale of a government stake in Lukoil is likely to be delayed — ostensibly because market conditions are not right — but more political factors may figure in.

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, there was so little information about the power structure in the Kremlin that Russia specialists abroad resorted to watching who stood next to whom on top of Lenin’s mausoleum during the annual military parade.

What’s different in today’s democratic, open Russia is that the Kremlinologist game is played not just in the West but, with an even greater fervor, in Russia proper. The same highly reliable source has told us that the strict division of labor between political and economic management has been the core part of Putin’s deal with Yeltsin and his entourage. Much of the Russian economy, where billions of dollars in oil revenues and from other sources sloshes about, is apparently run behind the scenes by the Kremlin’s powerful Chief of Staff, Alexander Voloshin.

Mr. Voloshin, the key holdover from the Yeltsin era, is rumored to be the real power behind the throne and the shadowy king-maker of the Kremlin.

According to this version, Putin has also been restricted in his choice of staffers. He has been able to bring his allies — mainly from St. Petersburg and mainly with security police background — to Moscow, but none in the economics field. Even his recent cabinet reshuffle in late March only serves to underscore this fact. The economy has to be run as it used to be run under President Yelstin.

But allegedly Putin has his shadow economics team and he will be ready to apply his trademark iron fist to the economy the moment the old man goes. When Yeltsin dies, the happy, tight-knit, truly nuclear “Family” that still holds the tight grip at the core of the Kremlin is expected to break apart. Its members are rife with internal conflicts that are bound to come into the open the moment the father figure disappears.

This scenario, however, is open to question. According to other sources, Yeltsin has been in a stupor for several years amd has functioned merely as a figurehead who is really in the hands of his close and internally well-coordinated cohorts.

Whatever the truth, one thing is certain. Boris Yeltsin was supposed to be the first Russian leader in history to leave office alive, peacefully and on his own accord. By the look of things, even though another face is now in charge in the Kremlin, for the real end of the Yeltsin era we still have to await the solemn music. Just as was the case, you might remember, in the times of Czar Ivan the Terrible, Emperor Peter the Great, Generalissimo Joe Stalin and Secretary General Leonid I. Brezhnev. It must be a deeply rooted Russian tradition.