- "Deal With Me, Or Deal With Zhirinovsky"
- On Wednesday, August 26, as the Russian
economy teetered near the edge of total collapse, newly reinstated Prime
Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin unexpectedly flew to Ukraine for emergency
meetings with Ukranian President Leonid Kuchma, Belorussian President Alexander
Lukashenko, and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Michel Camdessus.
Before he departed for the Crimean, Chernomyrdin reportedly met in Moscow
with Russian Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov, Russian Liberal Democratic
Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed.
While Chernomyrdin was scurrying between meetings, Russian President Boris
Yeltsin was nowhere to be found, until it was eventually revealed that
he was working from his country home, 60 miles outside of Moscow. The
question: What did Chernomyrdin hope to gain from his sudden trip to Ukraine
that warranted leaving crisis-ridden Moscow in the care of acting Deputy
Prime Minister Oleg Sysuyev?
- The latest phase in Russia's collapse
began last week, when the government of then Prime Minster Sergei Kirienko
announced both that it would let the ruble fall from 6.3 to 9.5 to the
U.S. dollar by the end of the year, and that foreign debt payments by commercial
banks would be frozen for 90 days. Last Sunday, President Boris Yeltsin
fired Kirienko, replacing him with former Prime Minister Chernomyrdin,
whom he had fired only five months previously, just prior to selecting
Kirienko. Whatever Yeltsin's motives were in choosing Chernomyrdin, his
selection did nothing to calm the situation either inside or outside of
Russia. The general consensus was that the new/old Prime Minister was
a non-starter. The financial situation continued to deteriorate, reaching
new lows on August 26 when the Central Bank halted trading on the Moscow
Interbank Currency Exchange and annulled the day's trading of the ruble.
- It was in this crisis atmosphere that
Chernomyrdin held separate meetings with Zyuganov, Lebed, and Zhirinovsky.
Zyuganov is the head of the Communist Party, the largest party in the
Duma, and a leader with a large and growing following. Lebed, who was
head of the national security apparatus before being fired by Yeltsin,
is a nationalist leader who draws on his record as an airborne general.
He speaks for substantial numbers of non-communist nationalists. Chernomyrdin
needs the Communist Party's support for his own confirmation in office
and for the success of his economic plans. He needs Lebed's support to
win over the fractious nationalists. However, Chernomyrdin's meeting with
Zhirinovsky had multiple purposes.
- Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats, with
51 seats, are the third largest party in the 450 seat Duma, after the Communists'
157 seats and Chernomyrdin's own "Our Home is Russia" party's
55 seats. The only other parties with more than 9 seats are reformist
Grigori Yavlinsky's Yabloko party, with 45 seats, and the Russian Agrarian
Party, with 20 seats. While Chernomyrdin needs Zhirinovsky's support for
his confirmation as Prime Minister, Chernomyrdin's meeting with Zhirinovsky
also intended a psychological effect.
- Zhirinovsky, while head of the third
largest party in the Duma, is more notorious for his outrageous statements
and extraordinary antics. His political base grew out of a heavy metal
music shop, and he delights in visiting such global pariahs as Moammar
Khaddafi. By treating Zhirinovsky on the same level as Zyuganov and Lebed,
Chernomyrdin may have been trying to tar the Communist and nationalist
leaders with the Zhironovsky brush. By saying that his political opposition
consisted of the three, he may have been trying to signal that the alternative
to his government was not a stable coalition of Communists and nationalists,
but an unstable, fascist regime with expansionist fantasies. In other
words, he was signaling that the choice was between him and chaos.
- Who was he signaling? Certainly not
the Russian public, who are not likely to panic at the symbolism. Rather,
the audience was Michel Camdessus, the IMF and, through them, Western financiers.
By meeting with Zhirinovsky before flying off to meet with Camdessus in
the Crimean, he was trying to drive home two points to the West. First,
that the Yeltsin regime was tottering and might fall. Second, that the
follow-on regime was likely to be much less stable and rational than Westerners
might expect. In other words, if the IMF, looking at Yeltsin's impotence,
thought that they might be better off dealing with a Zyuganov-Lebed regime,
which at least had some real popular support, they had better think again.
Along with them, the IMF and the West would get Zhirinovsky and the return
of the Cold War.
- The second audience was the Ukranian
government. Camdessus had been dealing with the Ukranians, who were in
far better shape financially than the Russians. Chernomyrdin was reminding
them that events in Moscow will shape events in Kiev. In other words,
if they make a deal with the IMF which takes care of their needs, without
a comparable IMF deal with the Russians, they would be facing a new government
in Moscow, one that would include Zhirinovsky. For good measure, Chernomyrdin
brought along Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belorussia and a man with
deep nostalgia for Brezhnev. Ukranian President Kuchma was invited to
see the future.
- Chernomyrdin is desperately shouting,
"apres moi, le deluge," trying to convince the West and Ukraine
that they can't afford to let him fail. In playing the Zhirinovsky card,
he may have concerned his audience, but it is unlikely to panic them.
Yeltsin scares them quite enough.
- The IMF cannot bail out Russia, and Western
banks will not bail out Russia. Ukraine is not in a position to underwrite
loans to Russia. Chernomyrdin is posturing to an empty theater. What
is interesting about all this is the length to which Chernomyrdin feels
he must go to get attention. Also significant is the fact that he no longer
has many options. Zhirinovsky is a fascist, but he is not going to be
included in the government. The issue is not whether or not there will
be a government of national unity including communists and nationalists,
but how many ministries Yeltsin will be able to hold on to.
- One threat, however, is real. The new
government will radically redefine Russian foreign policy. The West will
look back with nostalgia on the 1992-1998 period. Unfortunately, there
is nothing the West can do to save this corrupt and failed reform attempt.
Even if he was frightened by Zhirinovsky, Camdessus cannot save Chernomyrdin
and Chernomyrdin cannot save Yeltsin. The deluge is not coming. It is