Russia's Uncertain Rite of Succession

By Beichman, Arnold | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 2, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Russia's Uncertain Rite of Succession

Beichman, Arnold, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

One of the most widely used phrases in Russia is "postmotrim." It means, "we'll see." For example. You come across this passage in an article about today's Russia:

"Russia has at last become a relatively predictable country. The fundamental political and economic institutions have been created. The time has arrived to end discussions about the pending collapse of Russia. What needs to be discussed is not what Russia will become, but what it has become."

The author of that passage is Anders Aslund, one of the best informed political economists about Russia. It is the closing paragraph of his article, "Russia's Success Story," in Foreign Affairs, (Sept.-Oct. 1994). A Russian reading that passage would shrug his shoulders and say: "postmotrim," we'll see.

But is today's Russia "a relatively predictable country"? Has it solved the problem of succession, which always threatened the stability of the Soviet Union? Postmotrim.

In the Soviet period, no leader could predict his eventual successor because since there was no rule of law in the Soviet Union, succession to the top was by raw power. Vladimir Lenin would never have permitted Josef Stalin, whom he despised, to succeed him but he got Stalin. In turn, Stalin wanted Georgi Malenkov to follow him. So Nikita Khrushchev turned out to be the lucky chap. Khrushchev never intended to be ousted by Leonid Brezhnev, his own protege, but that's what happened in 1964. Brezhnev wanted to be followed by Konstantin Chernenko, anybody but Yuri Andropov, the onetime KGB chieftain, but what he got was Andropov. Andropov was followed by Chernenko who didn't last very long. He was followed by Mikhail Gorbachev who recoiled at the idea that he would be followed by Boris Yeltsin, but that's what happened in 1991. In seven decades, Leninism survived seven changes of leadership. And now we're back at the same Russian dilemma, who will succeed Mr. Yeltsin? Can Russia create a democratic succession?

Of course, there's a huge difference today in the succession problem from what it was before 1991. First, today there is a written constitution that provides for a solution. Such was not the case six years ago when a senior Soviet official was quoted by David Shipler as saying: "We had a great constitution under Brezhnev, but it had no practical value. There was no law, only empty phrases."

Second, Mr. Yeltsin was elected democratically by popular vote. And so far the constitution has been respected. If Mr. Yeltsin were to die or to resign, then Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin rules for three months, after which a new election for president must be called. There is no provision in the Russian constitution for a vice president who could serve out the remaining part of the ex-president's term.

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