With practically every move he has made this year, President Boris Yeltsin has distanced himself from the reformist principles that his government had championed and has embraced the agenda of his Communist and nationalist opponents.
He has purged the last prominent reformers from his administration and replaced them with hard-liners, opted for a bloody frontal assault rather than negotiations to end a hostage crisis and warned of an American military threat to justify a stronger security alliance among former Soviet republics.
The Russian leader’s attempt to retool his image comes five months before presidential elections in which he is likely to seek a second term. His strategy is clear: by attacking the unpopular policies that have defined his own presidency, he hopes to accommodate and outflank his opponents, who won a convincing victory in parliamentary elections last month.
At stake is more than the personalities in Yeltsin’s inner circle and Cabinet. What is more important is the kind of state Russia will become. Whether or not Yeltsin is re-elected, a government devoid of reformers is unlikely to pursue reforms.
Until Yeltsin sent thousands of Russian troops into Chechnya in December 1994 to crush a separatist movement, Yeltsin’s signal contribution to Russian politics had been to balance the traditional, overbearing might of the Russian state with a new respect for individual liberties, however imperfectly implemented.
As the Chechen war drags on into its 14th month, however, the state’s interests seem ascendant once again, and the leadership’s resort to violence has become a pattern.
Pervomayskaya, the village in southern Russia that federal forces pulverized last week, is exceptional only because of the attention it received as the scene of a standoff.
Russian forces have carried out dozens of lethal attacks on towns and villages in Chechnya where civilians were the primary victims.
Tellingly, Yeltsin’s most enthusias tic supporter in his decision to level Pervomayskaya was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist politician who plays on Russia’s sense of humiliation.
“Instead of seeing the strength of the state, we have just seen the cruelty of the state,” wrote Otto Latsis, a former adviser to Yeltsin and columnist for the reformist newspaper Izvestia.
Yeltsin’s strategy for political survival has been tested here before and found wanting. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, tried it in his final months in power, jettisoning his most liberal advisers and siding with hard-liners in an attempt to co-opt them. Instead, he just emboldened them, with disastrous results for both Gorbachev and Soviet power.
One critical difference now is that there is no Boris Yeltsin waiting in the wings, as there was in 1991. If Yeltsin falters, the alternative is not a fresh team of young reformers but Communists and nationalists who want to revive the Soviet Union, roll back free-market reforms and talk tough with the West.
By all appearances, Yeltsin’s presi dential campaign began at the New Year, just after he returned to the Kremlin after a two-month convalescence for heart problems.
He fired Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who was a favorite target of Communist and nationalist ire for his pro-Western orientation, and replaced him with Yevgeny Primakov, the head of Russia’s vast network of international spies and a longtime friend of Saddam Hussein. In his first news conference, Primakov stressed that Russia would behave as a “great power” and pledged a more aggressive pursuit of Russian interests, especially in relation to the West.
Yeltsin then removed his chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, a liberal who was a fish out of water in a Kremlin increasingly dominated by hardliners from the security agencies. He was replaced by Nikolai Yegorov, a hawk with little affection for democratic niceties who was one of the most outspoken advocates of the war in Chechnya.
The final blow came last week, with the forced departure of First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, the chief of Russia’s financial stabilization program and the last remaining prominent reformer in Yeltsin’s Cabinet. The removal of Chubais immediately sent jitters through the investment community and buffeted share prices on the Russian stock market.