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Russia's oligarchy.

The cover-up is ending in Moscow and Washington. Even President Boris Yeltsins Russian loyalists now admit publicly what has been increasingly evident for months: He is unlikely ever to return to office as a healthy leader, no matter how long he nominally holds the position. Meanwhile, Yeltsin's erstwhile partners in the Clinton Administration now insist, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it in an interview on Meet the Press, Our relationships with Russia are based on where they're going, other people in the government."

The Russian political and financial class, which has profited richly from Yeltsins regime, is terrified of a succession struggle that would threaten its control of the country's wealth. In a recent interview, Deputy Security Council Secretary Boris Berezovsky announced proudly that he and six other businessmen control 50 percent of the Russian economy. "Russia is undergoing a redistribution of property on a scale unprecedented in history," he boasted. (Berezovsky is reportedly working with ex-Reagan P.R. honcho Michael Deaver to polish his image in the West, following a Forbes article accusing him of being "the godfather of Russias godfathers.")This newly risen oligarchy, whose financial tentacles extend through the political establishment, particularly fears Aleksandr Lebed, the 45-year-old retired general whose anti-corruption crusades and peacemaking role in ending the Chechen War have made him the most popular political figure in Russia today. Indeed, according to recent polls, if fair elections were to be held within ninety days of Yeltsins resignation or death, as required by the Constitution, Lebed would win.

In response to a question I put to him in New York in January, Lebed told me he didn't believe fair elections would be held. "Ordinary Russians are now as far from the real levers of power as dley were during Soviet Communist Party rule, and the oligarchy loathe and fear me. They are already scheming to avoid general elections." Their argument, Lebed believes, will be: "Why should the president have to be chosen through such an exhausting and costly process as a general election? Wouldn't it be simpler to amend the Constitution so that he could be elected by some kind of convention of elected and worthy citizens, for example, at a joint session of the Dwna and the Federation Council [Parliaments two chambers]?" Lebeds proposis is shared by a number of independent commentators in Russia's media. They point out that the ruling but endangered elite could solve two problems at once: It would avoid the risk of a Lebed presidency and limit the powers of their own handpicked selection. Indeed, the Federation Councils chairman, a longtime Yeltsin loyalist, has already joined forces with powerful financial and political groups to amend the Constitution. Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin would probably be the oligarchys preferred candidate. Moreover, de-democratizing the choice of a Russian President might be palatable to the Clinton Administration, since Chemomyrdin is known to be its favored candidate.

The Clinton Admimstration ought to seize the end of the Yeltsin era as an opportunity to rethink its policy toward post-Communist Russia. During the four years that the Administration has backed Yeltsin as Russias best hope and his policies as "real reform," political power and economic wealth have been turned over to what even Russias leading liberal, Grigoryyavlinsky, now calls a "semi-criminal oligarchical regime." Americas once popular reputation in Russia is no more@ and for now, the Administration seems incapable of any new thinking about Russia. In that same interview, Albright insisted, "Russia needs to stay on the right track." But Russias oligarchy knows that the "track" has now aroused the wrath of its own citizens and is no longer compatible with democracy. Hence, its fear of the avenger Lebed and any new and real presidential election.
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Title Annotation:an oligarchy that has arisen during Boris Yeltsin's tenure in office
Author:vanden Heuvel, Katrina
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 17, 1997
Previous Article:Gains and losses.
Next Article:Corporate contribs - I.

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