By dismissing Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and warning that Russia may pull out of the Yugoslav peace talks, Boris Yeltsin has shown again that he will do almost anything to save his skin, even jeopardize his country's domestic stability and role on the international stage. For years the darling of the Western establishment, Yeltsin is in real danger. As investigations of financial scandals close in on the Kremlin, his family and his entourage, Yeltsin feels gravely threatened.
Yeltsin no longer (if he ever did) trusts the popular Primakov to protect him from the possibility of impeachment or from prosecution upon leaving office next year. And once Parliament starts impeachment proceedings, scheduled to begin on May 13, he can no longer legally dismiss it (although Russia's constitutional court is capable of authorizing anything). Moreover, in the parliamentary elections scheduled for December the Communists and other opponents of the regime are almost certain to increase their numbers in the Duma. Still worse, in the presidential election next June, no pro-Yeltsin candidate stands a reasonable chance.
Recklessly, and dangerously, Yeltsin is trying to replace Primakov with people he can trust. By naming Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin--the country's top policeman, who controls Russia's best-maintained military units and was an architect of the bloody and disastrous war in Chechnya--as acting prime minister, Yeltsin is signaling that he has in mind a less constitutional solution to his problems. Indeed, he is telling Parliament that he is prepared to disband it by force, as he did its predecessor in 1993. The domestic consequences of such a step are unpredictable. It is not clear that Stepashin can control his own police forces or what the regular army's reaction to a showdown with the President might be. Thus has Yeltsin risked the stability achieved by the Primakov team at a time when a stable government is badly needed to proceed with economic recovery and play a crucial role on the international stage.
Those who hope that, weakened by self-inflicted wounds, Russia will be more amenable to Western pressure are making a mistake. The mood in Russia is probably more anti-American today than at any stage in Russian, or even Soviet, history. Indeed, it's widely believed by political observers in Russia that anti-Primakov forces in the Clinton Administration (and the IMF) were involved in his ouster. As a result, Primakov's expulsion will make it more difficult to find support in Russia for the peace process or any deal made in the coming weeks.