April 24, 1998
MARGARET WARNER: Russian President Boris Yeltsin took his country and the world by surprise last month when he abruptly dismissed his entire cabinet, including Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Yeltsin blamed his former cabinet ministers for not carrying out his economic reforms. At first, Yeltsin said he would take the job of acting prime minister himself. But when aides told him that was unconstitutional, Yeltsin tapped Sergei Kiriyenko for the post. The 35-year-old Kiriyenko is a former oil and banking executive with scant government experience. He was energy minister but had served only 11 months in government. The Russian ambassador to the United States, among others, moved quickly to reassure foreign governments and investors about Yeltsin's intentions.
YULI VORONTSOV, Russian Ambassador to the U.S.: It is not a change of a flight plan. It is a change of the crew in the cockpit. And the huge plane called Russia is continuing the flight, staying the course, and gaining the altitude. The decision of the president was governed by the desire to enhance the economic reforms in Russia.
MARGARET WARNER: But Yeltsin faced more immediate problems at home. His move set up a potential showdown with the Russian parliament or duma, which, by law, must approve the president's choice of prime minister. Many members of the duma were furious at what they regarded as Yeltsin's high-handed move. That was particularly true of the Communists, the largest party in the duma. Critics, like Communist Party Leader Gennady Zyuganov, attacked Yeltsin for naming such an inexperienced person to be the government's number 2 man, and, if anything should happen to Yeltsin, his immediate successor.
GENNADY ZYUGANOV, Communist Party Leader, Russia: (speaking through interpreter) If he pursued a responsible policy, he would have summoned an authoritative team, but, instead, he called this young man who is doomed to fail.
MARGARET WARNER: Kiriyenko also faced opposition from business moguls, like newspaper tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who have profited handsomely in recent years as Russia's economy has opened up. Berezovsky's newspapers unleashed a media campaign against Kiriyenko. On April 10th, the Duma voted by secret ballot. Kiriyenko lost 186 to 143. After the balloting, Kiriyenko tried to shore up his candidacy by addressing the Duma. He also let Russian television film him sparring with his son, an effort to put a human face on a political unknown. A second balloting, taking a week later, was by open recorded vote. Kiriyenko lost by an even larger margin, 271 to 115. As the third and by law final vote approached, Yeltsin warned Duma members that if they rejected his choice, he had the option of dissolving the Duma and ordering new elections. Today's vote was by secret ballot, and Kiriyenko won handsomely--251 to 25. The new prime minister urged cooperation in the months ahead.
SERGEI KIRIYENKO, Russian Prime Minister: (speaking through interpreter)It's a time for us to leave political tensions and emotions behind. From today, we should build a construction relationship and work together.
MARGARET WARNER: In Washington, President Clinton reacted favorably to the news.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We have a high opinion of him based on our experiences with him, and the commission set-up we had with the vice president and the Russian prime minister, I look forward to continuing that, it's helped us to resolve an enormous number of issues. So this is, I think, a good news day for Russia and for the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: We get two views now. Stephen Cohen is professor of politics and Russian studies at Princeton University and has written widely about Russia. Michael McFaul is assistant professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was in Russia on March 23rd when President Yeltsin dissolved his cabinet and set these events in motion. Welcome, gentlemen. Michael McFaul, after you two unsuccessful tries, Boris Yeltsin today finally gets his man confirmed. Explain today's outcome.
MICHAEL McFAUL, Stanford University: Well, this was a big game of chicken between the Communist-dominated Duma on the one hand and Boris Yeltsin on the other. Both saw their integrity, their politics at stake. The Communists had to put up some kind of fight in order to show that they did not like this candidate; they thought he was too young; and most importantly they thought he was going to continue the course of liberal reform, which they imposed. But when push came to shove today, on the third vote, and they realized that if they vote against him, they have to face the electorate again, they lose their dachas, they lose the Duma, and they have to go out and campaign again, when push came to shove, they decided it's better to wait till 1999 to have that election, let's keep our place right now.
MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Cohen, your assessment of today and why it happened?
STEPHEN COHEN, Princeton University: Well, I think you have to look at today in the context of the last three weeks since the crisis began, since President Yeltsin fired his former prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. And if you look at the outcome today on the surface, it looks like a victory for President Yeltsin, but I believe these last three weeks have been a kind of crushing defeat for him. The events of the last three weeks has shown that he's utterly, near totally politically isolated in Russia, and secondly, he's now widely perceived in Russia as a capricious political leader and, therefore, somebody who jeopardizes the political stability of Russia. Considering the fact that the country has long been in the throes of profound, traumatic, economic, and social crisis, we now have a situation that can only be called unstable. I mean, nobody can believe that Kiriyenko--Kiriyenko is going to bring stability to the Russian political system.
MARGARET WARNER: So, why did he win today?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I think that Michael is right in part. I don't agree entirely. First of all, the Communists seemed to have done something today. We won't know until tomorrow for sure. But most of them just did not cast a ballot because the total number of votes doesn't add up to the total number of deputies. They did not vote because the voting was secret and, therefore, in effect, they cast a negative vote. I think in an odd way--and this may seem ironic--that what happened to the Communist Party--which has been in the kind of "to be or not to be" political situation during these last three weeks--it has emerged in the eyes of the country as a party that actually has some principles. And if you can do that for a Communist Party, you really achieve something in Russia. And that's thanks to President Yeltsin.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain a little more, Michael McFaul, about why the Communists were so unalterably opposed to Kiriyenko.
MICHAEL McFAUL: Mr. Kiriyenko is going to continue a policy of economic reform that they oppose. They think that it's wrong to have liberal economic reforms, market reforms.
MARGARET WARNER: Privatization.
MICHAEL McFAUL: Privatization, liberalization, direct foreign investment. They want to see a stop to that. They're dissatisfied with the last five to six years of reform, and they see him as a continuation of that. Having said that, I have to disagree with my colleague, Stephen Cohen. I don't see this as a crisis whatsoever. A crisis to me in Russia is when people have a political conflict and then they get on the phone and they start calling tank commanders to solve it. They didn't do that this time. What they did is they got out their constitution, and they said, how do we resolve this crisis, how do we resolve this government? Well, here are the rules that we have to follow. And governments rise and fall all over the democratic world. That's democracy. The to and fro that we saw building up to this vote, that's democracy, political compromise, and at the end of the day, if the tanks didn't come out, everybody abided by the rules of the game.
MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you think it really says good things about the state of Russian democracy.
MICHAEL McFAUL: I think it says very positive things, that other options, the non-democratic options were not exercised. There were some threats that it might happen. There were some threats that they might try to change the rules of the game.
MARGARET WARNER: That was Yeltsin's threat.
MICHAEL McFAUL: That was Mr. Yeltsin's threat. At the end of the day it didn't happen, and that is a good thing. That means they're playing by the constitution that they set up. After all, what have got--five years now we've been playing by this game. That, to me, is a very good sign.
MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Cohen, what do you think it says about the state of Russian democracy?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I think Michael is right about one thing. The last time that the Russian parliament was united against the president was 1993, and the showdown ended in tanks in the street and maybe three, four, five hundred people dead. That didn't happen this time, and that is a triumph for Russia. But, Lord, we don't measure the progress of the democratic system by the absence of tanks in the street. We expect something more In this case the constitution more or less worked but nobody knew exactly what it was. And I think it's a mistake to think that the country is not in crisis. And the issue--Michael's right--that the Communist did not want the economic policies represented by Mr. Kiriyenko and Mr. Yeltsin. But those economic policies have put Russia in the longest, deepest, and most profound economic depression of the 20th century. There is absolutely no evidence, despite spins by the Clinton administration, the World Bank, the IMF, and the Russian government, that the depression is ending. Mr. Kiriyenko, himself, during his first speech to the Duma three weeks ago--two weeks ago--admitted that there's no growth in the country, admitted that 1/3 of the population, a full 1/3 is living in poverty. It is not only the Communists but virtually all the opposition parties, including the Liberal Democratic or Social Democratic Party led by Grigori Lavlinsky, that wants a fundamental change in economic course. They want these monetarist policies ended, and they want, I think, what we Americans would call a new deal, a kind of like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, get out of the depression, economic policy that they see as Russia's only salvation. The crisis is exceedingly deep.
MARGARET WARNER: Is that what it means today to be a Communist in Russia--not that you'd want to go back to the good old days--but it's sort of an FDR, New Deal kind of thing?
MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, the Communist Party is very divided in Russia today. There are some that want to go back to a New Deal kind of thing. But the rank and file in the Communist Party, no, they're not quite ready for that yet. They want to go back to the Old Order--
MARGARET WARNER: The real Old Order.
MICHAEL McFAUL: The real Old Order in terms of Soviet Communism, and part of Mr. Zyuganov's dilemma over this period of votes was really trying to reconcile those two sides of the party. I think Mr. Zyuganov, himself, has gravitated towards the more social democratic way. But the rank and file, especially in the regions, are much more militant than he is.
MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Cohen, explain then if the Communists were against this and against economic liberalization, yet also some of the business tycoons who profited from economic reform, they were also against Kiriyenko's appointment. Explain that.
STEPHEN COHEN: I mean, I think it's a side bar, but an important side bar, that the so-called oligarches, that is, the guys who have gotten the big piece of the old Soviet economic pie, they've taken over, privatized, if you will. It's a strange form of privatization. But they've been given literally the wealth created by the Soviet state and the Soviet people over 70 years, they want more. They want bigger pieces of the pie, and they're not sure whom Kiriyenko represents. And if he's an independent political figure, that is good, but bear in mind that the--virtually the entire political spectrum now wants a fundamental change in economic policy in Russia. What the oligarches want, how they feel about Kiriyenko, seems to me not to be the main issue. The main issue here, insofar as Kiriyenko is involved, is his entire political social base comes down to 167, not very well--your own president. He has no base, no allies, no political coalitions available to him. He will do what Yeltsin tells him to do. He will remain prime minister as long as Yeltsin wants him to be prime minister, and if anything happens to Mr. Yeltsin, this man--and it doesn't matter that he's 35 years old--you can be President of the United States at 35--what matters is he has no experience, no political allies, no ties, that if anything happens to Mr. Yeltsin, this man will be for at least 90 days the president of Russia.
MICHAEL McFAUL: And it's precisely because he has no experience that this is such a good move. After all, the problem with a lot of the Soviet government leaders that we've had and now Russian government leaders is that they were trained in the Soviet system. This is a new breath of fresh air. The reason why the bankers are afraid of him is that he has said very clearly I do not want oligarchical capitalism in Russia; I want people's capitalism. I don't like that term. That's his term, not mine, but that's what he said. That's why they're nervous about him. And let's give him a chance to fail before we think he's going to fail. I don't give him much of a chance by the way. I think this thing--you know, I tend to think of Russian reform as a giant aircraft carrier going through the water and the brakes don't work anymore, and you can turn it a little to the left if you really pull, and you can turn it a little bit to the right, but it's moving in a way, and it's going to take a long time before you turn to the right and to market reforms. I don't expect miracles to happen in this year, but I think it's a good sign that there's been change. It gives the opportunity for positive change.
MARGARET WARNER: But, back to what you were saying about Kiriyenko, you mean, he really wants to say we don't want this crony capitalism, insider deals, and all of that, in the privatization, but you don't give him much--
MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, I'm hopeful, but I'm also--I've seen other people that came along who said the same thing. But, that said, he's saying all the right things. He's going to get rid of government bureaucrats. In a speech he said the government has grown by 1.2 million people since 1992. We're supposed to be shrinking this government as it becomes a non-Communist government, and it's gone the other way. He's going to take that on. He wants to take on the oligarchies. He wants to make what he calls liberal capitalism. And I applaud him for that.
MARGARET WARNER: You're smiling, Stephen Cohen.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, Michael is a romantic. I mean, it would be nice--I mean, it's nice to hear it, and it's nice to know that people still believe in fairytales, but you've got to look at the reality of Russia. Today's New York Times reported that in a small city outside St. Petersburg there are no cats any longer because the people have eaten them because they have nothing else to eat. Outside these glittery capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg this is the reality in Russia today. And to imagine that Mr. Kiriyenko--because he has no times to some oligarches--is going to change this without fundamentally changing economic policy--is just wrongheaded. And, by the way, this crony capitalism that Mr. McFaul doesn't like and, rightly so, was created by Mr. Yeltsin. And Mr. Kiriyenko was created by Mr. Yeltsin. My guess is until Mr. Yeltsin goes, there will be no profound change of policy in Russia, and, therefore, we are dealing in Mr. Kiriyenko with Mr. Yeltsin, nothing new.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Michael McFaul, does this outcome, does it leave Boris Yeltsin stronger as a result, or as Stephen Cohen's saying, isolated and obviously weaker?
MICHAEL McFAUL: No. The big winner in this is Boris Yeltsin. Three weeks ago, right before this crisis, everybody said that Yeltsin was not a political player in Russia. Viktor Chernomyrdin, the prime minister at the time, was the new guy. Boris Berezovsky, this banker who people claim controls Russia, he was the guy. Boris Yeltsin sent a wake-up call to the Duma, to the government, and to the rest of the world that he's still in charge, he's still calling the shots, and you know, I think he was the overriding--overarching winner in this, without question.
MARGARET WARNER: Quick rhetoric, Steve Cohen?
STEPHEN COHEN: Until now Yeltsin has had one thing going for him, despite his unpopularity and the failure of his policy. He has been seen in the country as the guarantor of stability. Nobody after these three weeks can consider him a guarantor of stability. He created the new political instability. It was his caprice that eliminated the old government and nominated a 35 year old person with no experience for the prime ministership of Russia. That is how Yeltsin is now perceived in Russia, as a factor of instability, and that is a wounding blow in Russia. He has lost big.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen. We have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.