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Life After Boris Yeltsin

When President Boris Yeltsin sneezes, the whole world listens. In a now familiar ritual, the Western world of Russia watchers saw (again) signs of the sky falling as we waited for better facts about the Russian president's health earlier this month. After first repeating third-hand rumors about medical issues about which we know nothing, journalists, politicians, and analysts like myself were then asked to pronounce boldly about the future of Russia without Yeltsin. Most could not imagine a Russia without Yeltsin. Some called him "indispensable" for stability. Others said Yeltsin was a leader whose "importance cannot be overestimated." Still others stated unequivocally that "Foreign investors ... won't return if Yeltsin is incapacitated." The most brazen predicted political and economic collapse in Russia should the president become incapacitated or die.

Obviously, all of these dire predictions have probabilities greater than zero. Yet, none are 100 percent certain to happen. Unlike most things in Russia today, we observers of the Russian scene actually influence these probabilities. The probability of crisis, chaos and meltdown in Russia after Yeltsin increases the more we speculate about crisis, chaos and meltdown. As the recent market failures in Asia demonstrated, the facts on the ground are often not as important as the perception of those facts. The more we expect economic and political collapse after Yeltsin, the greater the chances that our prophecies will become self-fulfilling.

Yeltsin still is the most important political figure in Russia today. The transition after Yeltsin, whenever it comes, will be filled with uncertainty. There are many good reasons to assume, however, that life in Russia will continue after Yeltsin.

First, those in power today are most likely to stay in power precisely if there is a crisis situation precipitated by Yeltsin's health problems. Under normal circumstances, presidential hopefuls from the current party in power will limp into 2000 with little to inspire voters. With the threat of communist restoration no longer credible, politicians such as Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov will have to deal with voters as all incumbents in democracies do -- they will have to defend their performance over the last four years. This will be tough sell. Most polls indicate that 2 percent to 3 percent of the electorate plan to vote for Chernomyrdin in the next presidential election, and these polls have a margin of error of 4 percent.

If Chernomyrdin is named interim president after Yeltsin dies or becomes incapacitated, however, the electoral atmosphere will be very different. Chernomyrdin will be in charge of the state and will become the immediate candidate of the so-called party of power. In these crisis conditions, even Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov will find it difficult to run against the interim president. Moreover, the sense of shock and uncertainty about the future actually will help Chernomyrdin. Stability is the one characteristic he inspires, and stability will be in high demand in a crisis transition.

Second, even if Chernomyrdin does not succeed Yeltsin, the chances of an anti-market candidate taking power in Russia are next to nil. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov's popular support has been stable and steady -- and well under 50 percent -- since the summer of 1994. While always a contender to be in the runoff, he has little chance of winning in the second round. Moreover, even if Zyuganov could win the next presidential elec-tion, his consistent coo-peration with Cherno-myrdin's government over the last four years suggests that he no longer has the stomach for revolutionary change.

No other presidential candidate has espoused openly anti-market principles. Of course, president Luzhkov would make changes to the current economic program while president Alexander Lebed would introduce much uncertainty into the economic policy-making process. Neither of these potential successors to Yeltsin, however, has an interest in radically changing course regarding market reform. A real change at the top might even energize the currently stagnant reform course.

Third and perhaps most importantly, even if these presidential candidates wanted to change economic course, they would have very little power to do so. Often, Yeltsin is portrayed as a superpresident at the top of a massive, vertically integrated state machine, pulling the levers of authoritarian power from his Kremlin roost. In fact, a better metaphor is to think of Yeltsin or the next Russian president as the captain of a slow-moving, but runaway aircraft carrier. The president has his hands on the steering wheel (making him look like he is in control) and he may be able to move the giant ship a little to the left or a little to the right at times. The enormity of the country, the vastness of the problems, and the constraints imposed by both public and private international financial institutions afford the captain little real power over the direction of the runaway ship. Sharp turns to the left or the right -- for good or for bad-- are simply out of the question.

The one factor that can cause a crash is subjective fears about the next captain. It will be the panicky reactions to the next president and the uncertainty surrounding the process of selecting the next president, and not the next president and his policies themselves, that could cause instability after Yeltsin. Unlike the runaway aircraft carrier, however, these subjective reactions to Yeltsin's departure are things that people can control. The next time Yeltsin sneezes, we can increase the chances of a smooth transition by believing -- or at least keeping open the possibility -- that a peaceful transition is just as probable as a calamity.

Michael McFaul is an assistant professor and Hoover Fellow at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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