In Russia, Speculation Grows that Yeltsin May Fire Another Premier

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

( - Is Boris Yelsin about to do it again? In recent days, Russian media have been speculating that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may -- like his four predecessors -- soon may be ignominiously sacked by the unpredictable president.

Upon appointing him, Yeltsin indicated that the former KGB head was his chosen successor. Yeltsin is obliged to relinquish the presidency next year. In office for fewer than 90 days, Putin's popularity ratings have rocketed, the apparent result of widespread backing for the military campaign he has spearheaded against "bandits" in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

But Russian media have got wind of alleged plans by Yeltsin to dump Putin, suggesting that Moscow is taking too much flak over the humanitarian disaster in Chechnya. Dr. Alena Ledeneva, professor of Russian politics at London University, said the speculation was in response to the fact Putin's ratings had gone "sharply up." When former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was fired, he too was enjoying high levels of popularity.

"The second possible reason is the Russian policies in Chechnya and international response," Ledeneva told "Obviously Yeltsin will have to take some action in response [to the concerns]. There's no question something will have to be done, and because Putin seems in favor [of the war], it might as well be him."

Should Yeltsin fire Putin, Ledeneva predicted no great upheaval. "From previous examples, nothing changes very much." Though denied by a Kremlin aide, the rumors in Moscow hold that Yeltsin may bring back Primakov, or replace Putin with the Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, a relative unknown who has taken a public interest in the refugee crisis caused by the Chechnya invasion.

The speculation comes against the backdrop of a bitter power struggle by two camps wanting to succeed Yeltsin -- media magnate and close Yeltsin ally Boris Berezovsky on the one hand, and a partnership of Primakov and Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov on the other.

Neither camp is supportive of Putin, analysts say. "Berezovsky, who is accustomed to running Russia's political show behind the scenes, doesn't trust the wily ex-KGB spy Putin," opined the St. Petersburg Times. "And Luzhkov and Primakov have watched helplessly as Putin has skyrocketed past both of them in the polls."

Berezovsky is backing Shoigu as the next prime minister. The media outlets Berezovsky control are pushing the Emergency Situations Minister into the limelight, while at the same time suggesting there's a conspiracy afoot to have Putin replaced by Primakov to please the West.

"The West clearly wants to have all of the main Russian political players in its hand at the same time [including] Yeltsin and Primakov in the first instance," according to an editorial in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Berezovsky-controlled title. "The current prime minister is less controllable by the West."

"The West is afraid of Putin," agreed analyst Nikolai Svanidze on RTR state television, while it preferred the "more predictable" and "manageable" Primakov. Sevodnya argued that while Putin was benefiting in the polls from the Chechnya campaign, his economic record was poor, providing another possible excuse for his dismissal.

Ledeneva disputed this view, noting that Putin had several days ago announced the first year of significant growth in GDP since 1991. Media reports indicate Yeltsin is under pressure from the West to end the Chechnya war, or face losing sorely-needed financial credits. U.S. and European governments have in recent days stepped up demands on Russia to end the fighting.

According to a weekend report in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Yeltsin has told Putin to end the war and fire army chief General Anatoly Kvashnin -- or step down. "Putin has been placed in an extremely difficult position since he has given the generals his word as an officer that he would support their conduct in the war and not negotiate with Chechen militants," the newspaper reported. "The decision to remove Putin has already been made."

Army commanders already have threatened to resign if called upon to end hostilities before achieving their stated goal of crushing the Chechen rebels, who are accused of bombing apartment buildings in Russian cities. The Russian army was humiliated in defeat during the 1994-96 war against Chechnya. The army's uncompromising stance prompted Izvestia to comment: "The generals have seized a civilian hostage - Vladimir Putin."

Yeltsin is expected to come under fire over Chechnya at next week's Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Turkey "We need to send a clear message to Russia [in Turkey] and the main message is to urge Russia to seek a political solution and not a military solution," Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik told a news conference in Stockholm this week.

The Moscow Times said in an editorial Tuesday that, while it was neither supportive of Putin nor his Chechnya policy, firing him would do Russia no particular good. It predicted the political camps vying for control in the post-Yeltsin era would either resort to violence -- recalling the situation leading up to the abortive 1993 coup attempt -- or reach a deal to divide power among the elites, a situation in which "no one wins and no one loses, except the people."

Kremlin aide Igor Shabdurasulov was quoted in several Moscow media outlets as denying that Yeltsin intends to dismiss Putin. For his part, Putin told Kommersant: "If you are always thinking about being fired there would be no time for anything else."

Yeltsin fired all four of Putin's predecessors - Sergei Stepashin (August 1999), Primakov (May 1999), Sergei Kiriyenko (August 1998) and Viktor Chernomyrdin (March 1998).

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow