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Primakov was certainly not a perfect Prime Minister, and it was easy for Yeltsin to find a reason to dismiss him. Officially his crime was nonfeasance: the failure to drag Russia from its spiraling depression. In the days before his dismissal, Yeltsin aides began to prepare for the change by depicting Primakov as a man suffering from lockjaw on the crucial economic issues Russia now faces. But there was also worry inside Yeltsin's circle that the Prime Minister was suffering from a more pernicious disease: ambition. While he had studiously denied any interest in running for President in 2000, Primakov had quietly pursued a strategy of building a base of support so that one day he would be "offered" the job by a desperate public. In the eight months since he came to office, his popularity had been steadily growing in opinion polls while Yeltsin's numbers faded into the low single digits. If Primakov was allowed to become President, Yeltsin aides insisted, he would have imposed on Russia a system that was a cross between the ideas of communist party leader Zyuganov and Joseph Stalin.
Primakov himself departed office with a joke and affectionate applause from his Cabinet. But he could afford to smile: by firing him, Russians say, Yeltsin boosted Primakov's chances of being the next President. Aides say Primakov has not yet made up his mind about the future. Yeltsin, however, does not have the luxury of choice. He has to keep fighting, and that is becoming ever harder for him. Despite claims, more often heard in Washington than in Moscow, that "Boris is back" in the driver's seat, his physical health and mental lucidity are often open to question. After dismissing Primakov last week, he seemed confused. The chairs of both houses of parliament say that when Yeltsin phoned to inform them of Primakov's dismissal, he told them his new nominee would be Nikolai Aksenenko, the Railways Minister. Shortly afterward, Stepashin's name was formally announced. His aides brushed off the gaffe--they have become such masters of explanation that justifying a President who couldn't remember the name of the man he wanted for Prime Minister is now old hat.
The Boris Yeltsin who occupies the Kremlin hardly resembles the man who emerged as the country's preeminent leader in 1991, when he faced down a communist coup aimed at rolling back reform. Then he was Russia's first real politician, and his thick hair and fast smile seemed to evoke a future that made Russians dreamy with hope. But Yeltsin today is an all too familiar Russian archetype. Reclusive and suspicious, the President lives in a tightly sealed world. Most presidential meetings are rigid and formal. Senior Cabinet ministers and aides have an old-fashioned phone next to their desks. Instead of a dial it bears a simple sign reading THE PRESIDENT. It is widely understood, however, that the phone is for answering, not calling.
In an era in which most world leaders are plugged into hundreds of sources of information, from CNN to their own intelligence reports, Yeltsin's worldview is shaped largely by a daily press digest of about 17 pages. Whether he looks at it is another matter: a succession of aides have complained that he is loath to read. It is equally hard to persuade him to watch the TV news. Meanwhile the circle of people who have unfettered access to him is strikingly small. The circle consists of his former chief of staff Valentin Yumashev, who still wields enormous influence from the shadows; Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana; and very few others.
And this, at heart, is how Yeltsin's tragedy has become Russia's. He is no longer a man of the people--certainly not in the political sense. His once broad-reaching vision, for a Russia where all people had a vote and a share in economic prosperity, has been replaced by a narrow and dangerous selfishness. Yeltsin had the political wiles to avoid being impeached this time, but whether he deserved to be impeached or not is still a question many Russians are unhappily discussing.