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Comment: Yeltsin Strikes Again

There was a run of bad news out of Russia last week: cholera appeared in Siberia, and officials there could only close the borders and pray; energy workers in the far east, desperate for wages that nobody intends to pay them, have entered the second week of a hunger strike; a plague of locusts laid eggs over millions of acres of central Russia's finest farmlands; and, in an eerie echo of the country's most recent sustained catastrophe, a thousand of the most successful Islamic guerrillas in the world stormed across the Chechen border into Dagestan, declared a holy war, and are battling the Russian Army for control of the province.

So it seems understandable that when Boris Yeltsin, the autocratic and aggressively incomprehensible Russian President, fired his Prime Minister and dissolved the government last Monday it didn't really matter to most Russians. Everybody gasped, the ruble plunged for a couple of hours, and then it edged back a bit and people returned to whatever they were doing. Why should anybody be shocked?" The State Department spokesman, James Rubin, who issued the standard American statement of support for Yeltsin on such occasions, was right when he said, "It is the prerogative of the President to choose the Premier." What he didn't say is that firing Prime Ministers is about all that Yeltsin is capable of these days. He does it for the simplest and scariest of reasons: because he can.

Yeltsin has just named his fifth Prime Minister in the past seventeen months (and that's not counting his unconstitutional attempt to appoint himself to the job in 1998). It's hard not to laugh, but what's happening in the Kremlin is unbearably sad. Ever since he dropped the first of thousands of bombs on Chechnya, in 1994, Boris Yeltsin has moved steadily toward gutting the democracy he so heroically helped to build in 1991. There was a time when being endorsed by, supported by, or even seen with Yeltsin would have been a great honor for almost any Russian. Even in 1996, amid the secret heart attacks and astonishing bribery of his Presidential campaign, when he hinted that the maverick general Aleksandr Lebed was the man he wanted to succeed him, Russians were impressed with his self-confidence.

Yeltsin's early Prime Ministers cared mostly about economics, but the experiment with reform has ended, and the last three premiers have been from another world completely: Yevgeny Primakov, Sergei Stepashin, and now Vladimir Putin are true sons of the K.G.B. They were hired to marshal power and to make sure that it stayed in the grasping hands of their boss.

The main reason for the latest change, after only eighty-two days, is already clear: Stepashin proved incapable of containing Yuri Luzkhov, the populist brute who is the mayor of Moscow and the man most likely to take Yeltsin's job in next year's elections. That is, if there are elections. Yeltsin said on Monday that there would be a vote for a new President next summer, and for the first time he named the man he wants to follow him: Putin, who has never held elective office and has no political power base. But the Kremlin is already positioning the new appointee as a latter-day Yuri Andropov, who was the most brutally effective of the old Communist disciplinarians. Putin quickly started speaking in classic Soviet phrases about "fulfilling" the President's orders and "achieving" his goals. In his first speech, he attempted to put the nation at ease by asserting that there was "no basis" for a state of emergency or for cancelling elections. Comforting-but not exactly true.

The "basis" for such an emergency is actually working its way across the Caucasian highlands toward the Caspian Sea. The Muslim spiritual leaders of Dagestan are not yet as radical or as bloodthirsty as their counterparts in Chechnya. But the fighters are led by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander whose gift for humiliating Russia is almost equal to that of his nineteenth-century namesake, the warrior Imam Shamil. Moscow has responded just as it did when the Chechen war began, in 1994; officials call the separatists "bandits" and claim that the situation will soon calm down. The Interior Ministry, which controls internal security in Russia, has taken to summoning correspondents and showing them an elaborate snuff film that features various hostages in Chechnya being beaten, stabbed, tortured, and killed. One scene shows an American, released last month, having his finger cut off. It is far from the most grisly episode on the tape.

About all this Boris Yeltsin has absolutely nothing to say. His citizens can be excused their determined indifference. Their government is in the hands of a man whom only the crazy could understand. As another former favorite of Yeltsin's, Boris Nemtsov, said of the President's behavior last week, "It is hard to explain madness."

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