Autocrats seldom go quietly, and Boris Yeltsin is no exception. With his term of office scheduled to end next year, the Russian president has deliberately plunged his country into a new bout of political and economic turmoil, driven by a single objective. "Yeltsin's only concern is, and always has been, his own power," says TIME Moscow correspondent Yuri Zarakhovich. "He's prepared to hold onto power even if that means bringing catastrophe upon his country."
The latest crisis, provoked by the firing of popular prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, ends the president's eight-month cease-fire with the Communist-controlled parliament and sets the stage for a fierce political battle as his second -- and supposedly final -- term in office draws to a close. The legislature's term expires in December, emboldening it to face down a president whose autocratic constitutional power includes the right to summarily dissolve parliament and call new elections. "For the Communists, it's convenient to have a confrontation with Yeltsin in which he dissolves the Duma," says Zarakhovich. "It will make them heroes and strengthen their chances of being reelected."
But the confrontation was launched by Yeltsin, and it suggests he has no intention of leaving office when his term expires in 2000. "Yeltsin doesn't believe he has to surrender power next year," says Zarakhovich. "If his physical condition allows it -- which is far from certain -- no constitutional requirements will get him out of office. The whole history of Yeltsin's presidency suggests that he'll find a way, such as provoking a confrontation and then declaring a state of emergency, to stay in power."
Far from the democratic visionary he painted himself as -- and which the West needed him to be, in order to believe the good guys had won out in the Soviet Union's collapse -- Yeltsin's only agenda is to be running things. "If Buddhism had been fashionable in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed, Yeltsin would have become Moscow's Dalai Lama," says Zarakhovich. "Democracy was popular, so the former Communist Party leader became a democrat. He's the consummate political animal, at his best when he's fighting -- he's already shown that he's willing to shoot in order to keep his power."