In about ten months, Yeltsin is supposed to leave office. Unless he can plug a loyalist into the Kremlin--through elections or otherwise--and get a Ford/Nixon-style blanket pardon, Yeltsin surely fears he will be hounded by future governments and prosecutors. The Kremlin inner circle that Russians derisively call "the Family"--chief among them Boris Berezovsky, who even in 1996 was urging Yeltsin not to have presidential elections--are feeding that fear. Like Yeltsin, the Family members need a loyal lieutenant as the new president. The catch is, Yeltsin's anointed successor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is unelectable in the few months remaining. In fact, the uncharismatic former KGB man Putin will probably never be electable as long as he is opposed by Luzhkov and Luzhkov's prize allies, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and the powerful NTV television.
As Yeltsin mulls this over, the Family is whispering in his ear. Long before the Bank of New York made headlines, the Family's media were trumpeting the idea that there can be no safe retirement for Yeltsin. Berezovsky-controlled ORT national television, for example, has reported loudly (and incorrectly) that a Luzhkov lieutenant has advocated having Yeltsin shot in the same manner as Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. That "report" was engineered by the Family and had an intended viewership of one: Yeltsin.
Literaturnaya Gazeta, a paper controlled by Luzhkov's pet holding company, AFK Sistema, countered with a report in August that forces in the Kremlin were preparing to discredit the Moscow mayor by hitting his city with terrorist bombings. Since the end of August, Moscow has been stunned by three major bombings that have killed more than 200 people.
Enter the United States--wailing and gnashing our teeth about Russian corruption. For the Family, the timing could not be better. Another Berezovsky property, the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, promptly reported that Luzhkov was somehow orchestrating all the embarrassing international news coverage. Berezovsky also said as much in an interview with the Interfax news agency: He argued that "Luzhkov and his henchmen" were behind the Western media reports and should be "brought to justice." Meanwhile, Izvestia, controlled by the Uneximbank/Rosbank empire, has been reporting that a Republican White House would seek to extradite and prosecute Yeltsin.
Now imagine Yeltsin inside his Kremlin bunker--following the back-and-forths in the Russian media about his future and contemplating his colleagues on the world stage. He must be thinking: What did Slobodan Milosevic ever do in Kosovo that I didn't do ten times over in Chechnya? How corrupt is Indonesia compared with Russia? And even if I want to step down, can I afford to if the Russian Communists and the US Republicans both want me on trial?
The White House ought to be countering the Berezovsky spin with a Machiavellian public relations operation of its own--one designed to convince Yeltsin that his safety is assured, provided he leaves office democratically. But it may be too late. There are a handful of ways Yeltsin and the Family can scuttle elections--and since the Bank of New York story broke, all have shifted into high gear. Yeltsin could simply declare a state of emergency and put the vote on hold. Plausible-sounding justifications can be found in the Moscow bombings and the Chechen rebels who recently poured over the border into Dagestan. The Kremlin could also stage-manage a new crisis by yanking the embalmed Lenin out of Red Square and burying him in a cemetery, provoking a largely harmless Communist demonstration that could be overdramatized.
A less confrontational way would be for Yeltsin to resign on a date--November 7, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, is often mentioned--carefully chosen to wreak the most havoc. Or the Kremlin could ram through a treaty on reunification with Belarus. Putin and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko recently came to agreement in Minsk on just that. They say that the new state must be consummated before the 2000 election. And once it's a new country, it will be easy to argue that the rules for a Kremlin election need to be rewritten.
All of the above could even happen more or less simultaneously. That is more likely than an orderly transfer of power to, say, a President-elect Primakov. If Russian democracy does end up definitively jettisoned, I propose we all meet at Starbucks and read about it in the New York Times. One of us can drop our Mochalotta Chill in shock and exclaim: "Oh no, look: Russia's a dictatorship! Why didn't they listen to the reformers?"