Political chess game begins in battle to ratify Chernomyrdin

 

On April 17th, Mr Sergei Kiriyenko's candidacy for the Russian presidency received 115 votes in the Duma and 271 deputies voted against him. A week later, he won through by 251 votes to 25.

These figures put Mr Viktor Chernomyrdin's task into perspective. If President Yeltsin stands by his man and more critically if all the political players stand by the constitution, Mr Chernomyrdin has every chance of being ratified, if only at the third attempt.

Russian politics is a complicated business whose public face rarely reflects what is going on behind the scenes.

In the coming weeks the posturing will increase. There will be talk of civil war and of impeachment of the President and of forcible dissolution of parliament, but all that should be seen in the context of the setting of bargaining positions for the final vote.

The opposition in the Duma will make every attempt to pressurise Mr Yeltsin into choosing a compromise candidate and to include Communists in the cabinet.

But Mr Yeltsin, if his mind is clear enough these days, will know that his position on the political chess board is much more strongly placed than that of the opposition. He did, after all, write the constitution himself.

If, as seems certain, Mr Chernomyrdin's candidacy is defeated again next week, then the political endgame will have begun. The Duma will have just two moves open to it. It can accept or reject Mr Chernomyrdin. Acceptance would be the chess player's equivalent of tipping over the king in concession. Rejection would merely prolong the game and might result in a loss of the series.

Should Mr Chernomyrdin's candidacy be voted down a third time, Mr Yeltsin will be obliged to dissolve the Duma and hold elections in four months.

The prospect of having to fight new elections is unlikely to deter the opposition as much as it has done in the past, as a new Duma would probably be even more strongly anti-Yeltsin than the current one.

What is most likely to concentrate the minds of the opposition is that a dissolution would mean four months of direct rule by Mr Yeltsin without any checks or balances from parliament - a prospect which does not bear thinking about. In the days coming up to the third vote one can expect some very serious statements from deputies to the effect that the Duma must be kept alive in order to preserve democracy.

Only one opposition party is likely to hold out against Mr Yeltsin on principle. The Yabloko grouping, led by the liberal economist, Mr Grigory Yavlinsky, is the only truly democratic grouping in the Duma and totally opposed to Mr Yeltsin's presidency.

The other opposition groupings, including the communists, have always been ready to do deals whether on an individual or a collective basis, and in this context the votes of Mr Zhirinovsky's group are crucial. Contrary to reports, Mr Zhirinovsky's deputies did not vote against Mr Chernomyrdin on Monday. In fact, 49 of the 50 Zhirinovsky deputies did not vote at all.

When the final vote is taken one can be as certain as is possible in Russian politics that the Zhirin ovsky vote will go to Mr Yeltsin's candidate. It always has done when the chips are down.

This fact almost caused a fist fight on the floor of the house when the final vote on Mr Kiri yenko was taken. Mr Yavlinsky in his speech accused Mr Zhirinov sky of selling his party's votes for cash. The right-wing demagogue called for a fight and accused Mr Yavlinsky of being a "lackey of American imperialism".

Mr Zhirinovsky in a tactical operation may actually vote against Mr Chernomyrdin in the second ballot in order to increase tension but when the crunch comes he will support the President. In any event the initial humiliation of Mr Chernomyrdin in the Duma should be seen as the first step in a complicated political dance routine rather than an escalation of the current crisis.