Yeltsin immunity suggests a deal done with Putin
Ex-president Yeltsin's resignation on the last day of 1999 may have stunned Russia and the world, but what happened in its immediate aftermath was not just sinister but thoroughly predictable.
Almost the first act of acting President Vladimir Putin was to issue a decree granting immunity to Mr Yeltsin and bestowing privileges on members of his family.
The text of the decree is open to interpretation as to how immune members of Mr Yeltsin's family will actually be from prosecution for corruption. But as Mr Yeltsin's residence has been declared immune and all the members of his family live at the same address, they look pretty safe at a time when revelations of largescale corruption are continuing to emerge.
Mr Putin's decree states that Mr Yeltsin will be immune from "prosecution, arrest, bodily search and interrogation". The immunity will extend to his "place of residence, his offices if he continues to work, his vehicles, his means of communication, his baggage and his correspondence". The immunity is so comprehensive that Mr Yeltsin's chances of sleeping soundly have vastly improved.
The issuing of the decree has suggested to many analysts that a deal had been done between Mr Putin and Mr Yeltsin. However it was arrived at, the resignation was a political masterstroke for the Yeltsin camp. It got the president off the hook in same the way as Richard Nixon was saved in the US, and it put his chosen successor into an almost impregnable position in the race for the presidency.
Mr Putin's popularity has been based on perceived success in the Chechen war, and on that alone. With six months to go until the scheduled election, reverses, particularly the publication of the real figures for Russian casualties, might have deprived him of the top job.
Now, with a foreshortened campaign and fewer than 30 days to go to polling day, the chances of his encountering a serious banana skin on the road to the Kremlin have diminished considerably.
Barring a major unforeseen disaster, therefore, Mr Putin will be elected President of Russia. But what sort of president will he be?
Will he, for example, allow the super-wealthy oligarchs to continue their behind-the-scenes roles in the governing of the state? Will he put people such as Mr Boris Berezovsky, the latterday Rasputin, and the oil tycoon, Mr Boris Abramovich, in their places?
Any actions he might contemplate against these two men will be limited by the fact that they too enjoy immunity. Mr Berezovsky gained his by being elected to the Duma for Karachayevo-Cherkessia in the Caucasus, while Mr Abramovich made it to parliament on the votes of the reindeer-herders of Chukotka in the far north-east.
It is somewhat early to judge what type of president Mr Putin might become and what sort of policies he might pursue. His retention of Mr Alexander Voloshin as presidential chief of staff and of Mr Yeltsin's scheming daughter, Ms Tatyana Dyachenko, as an adviser do not inspire confidence that the Kremlin will be purged of corruption and intrigue.
Mr Voloshin and Ms Dyachenko are understood to be close to Mr Berezvosky, and have been credited with devising the vicious propaganda campaign on TV against the leadership of the non-communist opposition group, Fatherland-All Russia (OVR), in the parliamentary election campaign.
Significantly, the OVR leader, Mr Yevgeny Primakov, had specifically stated that if he were elected president he would grant immunity to Mr Yeltsin but to no one else.
As a former KGB spy, Mr Putin's commitment to democracy is open to question. His personality, or lack of it, is one of the things that ordinary Russians, who are usually warm and humorous, distrust. His propensity for using criminal slang and lavatory humour is disconcerting too. Western observers have praised him for his commitment to the market economy and an orderly transfer of power but it is far too early to see if that praise will be justified by action. All we have to go on are his past comments and a major policy statement placed on the Internet last week.
He talks of his wish to encourage investment, but his published view that Russia needs a very strong state which involves itself not only in the lives of the people but in the regulation of business and the economy will raise some eyebrows among the international and local business communities.
He is also on record as saying that the economy can be improved by the strengthening of Russia's military-industrial complex. In a country whose economy was ruined in the past by excessive military spending this is a remarkable idea.
Mr Putin's view that Russia is not destined to become a western-style liberal democracy may for a time gain him support in certain sections of the electorate who want to see a firm hand used to end the constant instability which existed during Mr Yeltsin's tenure in office.
This might suit Russians now, but they could live to regret their decision if the result is a quasitotalitarian administration.
Mr Putin's policy statement is available on the Irish Times website (www.ireland.com)