Viktor Chernomyrdin

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 11 1999 3:30 AM

Viktor Chernomyrdin

The minister nobody knows.

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Russian president Boris Yeltsin generally uses political appointments in two ways: first, to demonstrate that he's still the boss; and second, to catch people off guard. Most recently he picked, as his special envoy to Yugoslavia, a man known neither for an effective negotiating style nor for foreign policy expertise but, rather, as a man of strong will, few convictions, and a tendency to move slowly. The Russian prime minister from 1992 until 1998, a Soviet apparatchik before that, Viktor Chernomyrdin remains, oddly, a cipher. To his supporters, Chernomyrdin is a moderate who kept the Russian political machine steady for an unusually long time. To his critics, he's a politician who has never had a clear strategy or articulated an unambiguous position.

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His diplomatic experience is limited. Chernomyrdin was the co-chairman of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, a biannual meeting that addressed much and solved little, aside from keeping Russia's decrepit Mir space station in orbit. He also helped Russia out of the hostage crisis that occurred in 1996, when a group of armed Chechens took 1,200 hostages at a hospital in a southern Russian town outside Chechnya. Federal troops surrounded the terrorists and hostages, and Shamil Basayev, the leader of the hostage-takers, demanded to speak with Yeltsin, who was in Halifax, Canada, with the leaders of the G-7 nations.

Chernomyrdin got on the phone and, in a desperate and fragmented conversation broadcast live on Russian TV, negotiated the release of the hostages. In exchange, he allowed the terrorists to return to Chechnya, taking a busload of hostages with them as human shields (they were later released). The incident was initially viewed as a triumph for Chernomyrdin--until the terrorists, now Chechen national heroes, used the incident to propel themselves to power. His critics point out that Chernomyrdin's order to the troops not to storm the hospital ensured the Chechens' ultimate victory. Of course, had Chernomyrdin authorized the attack, he would have been blamed for the deaths of innocent civilians.

So, what was Chernomyrdin's position on Chechnya? Nobody knows. Although he was prime minister during the war in Chechnya (which has more than surface similarities to the war in Kosovo: It was a war against an ethnic minority seeking greater autonomy, a war that Russia could neither win nor negotiate its way out of for two bloody years), Chernomyrdin has yet to take a stand on it or on what the republic's relationship ought to be with the Russian federation. The agreement that halted the war was negotiated by a presidential appointee who was not a member of the Chernomyrdin government.

Inside Russia, Chernomyrdin is remembered as the man who presided over the country's transition from a period of utter economic and social desperation to one of relative stability. On the other hand, when Yeltsin fired Chernomyrdin in March 1998, the Russian economy was on the brink of collapse. The debate over Chernomyrdin's premiership centers on whether his policies of gradual reform helped postpone the breakdown or whether his chronic inaction led to the stagnation that ultimately destroyed the economy. Either way, throughout his tenure he avoided making decisions, instead deferring to the president and playing different factions within his own government off one another.

To the West, Chernomyrdin is the man who moved Russia closer to the West and forged a friendship with the United States. It may be tempting to read in Chernomyrdin's appointment a message from Yeltsin to the United States to the effect that Russia is finally willing to behave as though loans were more important than a nationalist foreign policy. But more likely the message was intended for a Yeltsin appointee turned rival, Yevgeny Primakov, the confrontational, pro-Serbian prime minister who hopes to capitalize on the Kosovo crisis. The night Operation Allied Force began, Primakov, en route to the United States for loan negotiations, turned his plane around in midair, losing the money but gaining immense popularity at home. For weeks afterward, his former aide and current foreign minister issued a pro-Serbian, anti-NATO line and decried claims of anti-Albanian atrocities as defamatory. Yeltsin's own public statements on the conflict were not all that different, but now that Chernomyrdin has arrived on the scene, the rhetoric has become noticeably milder. In the new envoy's first public statement on Yugoslavia, he ruled out the possibility of Russian military involvement.

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Y eltsin's previous appointment of Chernomyrdin, in December 1992, was another of Yeltsin's inspired and unexpected moves. Before Chernomyrdin joined Yegor Gaidar's reformist government half a year earlier, he had had the political profile of an apparatchik, which is to say, he didn't have one. Born to a truck driver's family in the provincial city of Orsk, Chernomyrdin worked his way up through party ranks. He was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and, briefly, the minister of the oil and gas industries under Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1990, he lost a race for parliament. He was mainly known in the Gaidar government for holding no views and taking no actions, which meant he could be sold as the least of all evils to all factions in the bitter political crisis of late 1992.

As a politician, Chernomyrdin may seem awkward and indecisive, but as a businessman, he is said to be ruthless. Chernomyrdin is a member of a unique species of post-Soviet businessman--the all-powerful and extremely wealthy head of a state corporation. As the first chairman of of Gazprom, the Russian gas utility, he presided over the company's issuance of stock. His tax returns estimate the worth of the stock he holds at $50,000, but other published reports place his personal wealth at $5 billion. His position as the man in charge of the pipeline made him an effective negotiator with post-Soviet republics, which depend on Russia for natural gas and generally have huge unpaid gas debts. Though Russia also exports gas to Yugoslavia, this fact seems unlikely to sway Milosevic any more than threats to cut off Serbia's oil and electricity have.

Chernomyrdin's most notorious trait is his inarticulateness, which may stem from an ill-suppressed tendency to swear. His bizarre pronouncements have been a source of endless joy to Russian political journalists. Here is what he had to say, for example, on the Russian financial crisis last August: "There was a state. The state retained. The state began to accumulate. Results began to be had." Speaking of his tenure as prime minister, he claimed, "If one considers what could have been done, and then what we did do over this long time, one can conclude that something was done." Finally, his best-known statement, which in its eloquent ineloquence seemed to sum up everything about Russian politics, was, "We hoped for the best, but it turned out as usual."

In appointing the bland, seemingly slow-paced Chernomyrdin as his envoy, Boris Yeltsin is probably hoping that Chernomyrdin will somehow pull off a settlement without really seeming to or without raising too many hackles, and that his ultimate success will be Primakov's loss. But, like many of Yeltsin's recent appointments, this one has the quality of being surprising without being brilliant. Chernomyrdin is not all that qualified to succeed in his new mission, and he may not even be motivated to do so. He has already announced that he plans to run for president in the year 2000 (the law bans Yeltsin from taking part in that election, but Primakov is another likely candidate). If Chernomyrdin succeeds in convincing Milosevic to accept enough of NATO's demands to guarantee some sort of deal, he will go down in domestic political history as the man who sold out Serbia. If he's worried about the folks at home, what he should probably do is take advantage of his own personal weaknesses, and stubbornly and laboriously fail.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.