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Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

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‘The Jinxed White House of Moscow"

-I.K. GUJRAL

In the jinxed White House of Moscow nothing survives. In seventeen months a fifth Prime Minister is now parcelled out. In its hexed history even an elected Duma was shelled out not by any alien power but by head of the state himself. The succeeding Parliament moved its chamber away to a safe distance.

In the Soviet era, office of the Prime Minister and his deputies were located in the prestigious Kremlin Palaces. But no more. Under an ominous star they were shifted to this white marble faced mansion. With the result that the country witnesses an array of short-lived Prime Ministers; "Stepashin served just under three months, the shortest terms of any of Yelstin’s prime ministers, following Yevgeny Primakov, who was fired after eight months; Sergei Kiriyenko, survived for five months". Of course Viktor Chernomyrdin, stayed for five years but before him Gaidar had lasted only six months.

Back to back, the White House and Annexe of the American Embassy are close neighbours. It seems the magical spell had spilled over to it too. The Americans suspected that the Soviet builders had bugged it despite all denials till Gorbachev revealed the secret. As a gesture of friendship, he gave to the C.I.A, detail of the extensively imbedded bugs. The distracted Americans could not decide if the de-bugging would be a good option.

During my July visit to Moscow I heard no whisper about Prime Minister Stepashin’s impending fate. On the contrary he was believed to be Yelstin’s close confidant. My meeting with his first Deputy Prime Minister who recently visited India and the Foreign Minister gave me enough evidence of his durability. But the "revolving door" revolved soon after my departure. No diplomat would have heard about Mr.Putin beyond his career as a Soviet spy in Germany. But Yelstin has his own ways. He is now projecting him as his successor. Though Putin’s response was characteristic to say that he was not planning for the Presidential run, since he was accustomed to "obeying", so he would seek office if ordered to, " We are military men and we will implement the decision that has been made".

But why this sudden change? Soon after his dismissal, a ‘shaken Stepashin’ told his cabinet colleagues, " he thanked me for my good work - and dismissed me. I honestly expressed my position concerning my resignation to Boris Nikolayevich [Yelstin], but this is his right as president and commander in chief. I told the president that I have been, am and will be with him until the end."

What next? President Yelstin says, "In exactly one year’s time, for the first time in the country’s history, the first president of Russia will transfer power to a fresh, newly elected President." The sceptics have their doubts. They persist in asking, "will he?" The Moscow Times asks its readers, "if they remember Sergei Shakhrai, Vladimir Shumeiko and Oleg Soskovets? Like acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, all three were publicly anointed as heirs to President Boris Yeltsin’s throne - just as Alexander Lebed and Boris Nemtsov. But like Lebed and Nemtsov, they found that being named Yeltsin’s political heir was a one-way ticket to the political wilderness". "Almost from the moment Yeltsin came to power in 1991, naming his chosen successor has been a bit of a Kremlin parlor game - a game that is hazardous for the careers of the so-called ‘winners’. Being named Yeltsin’s heir - either by the President himself or by Moscow’s chatty news media - has turned out to be the kiss of death." Said Speaker of the Duma cryptically, "Yeltsin has put an end to Putin’s career."

These banters apart, several serious names are in circulation as potential candidates for the next July elections. A highly rated Mayor of Moscow Mr Luzhkov is one of the front-runners. He has given a remarkable face lift to the city. In my long associations with Moscow, I had never seen it looking so beautiful. Luzhkov has projected this accomplishment as his election manifesto saying, ‘if elected I will give a similar face lift to the whole country’.

The Russian media believes that a possible reason for Stepashin’s exit was his failure to checkmate the formation of the Luzhkov-sponsored "Fatherland Russia", that unites him with some powerful regional governors. Prime Minister Putin has lost no time in attending to this task.

Luzhkov has recently said that he would be happy to support Primakov’s candidature. This "Primakov factor" has received attention of the American media too. The Moscow Times has publicised a public opinion poll that holds Primakov as "most popular and trusted politician", who could single handedly alter the December poll of the State Duma. A Russian pollster agency the VTsIOM says that the Communist Party will dominate the Duma elections and is likely to get 34 percent votes while Luzhkov’s Fatherland is much lower with 16 per cent. "But this picture could change dramatically if Primakov decides to join the Fatherland. Then Luzhkov’s party leapfrogs past the Communists into first place with 28 percent, pushing the Communists to second place with 27 percent. If, on the other hand, Primakov were to join the Communists then the Fatherland sinks with it securing just 12 percent. The Communist, correspondingly will soar taking a startling 40 percent".

Primakov is well-known to us in India. He had turned around Russia’s post-war foreign policy that had tilted West-ward ignoring its traditional allies and friends in the East. During his recent visit to India, Primakov talked about China-India-Russia cooperation. He was not suggesting a bloc formation, but was visualizing benefits of cooperation amongst the neighbours. During my recent meeting with him in Moscow I asked him if he had sounded China. "Not yet but this could be explored", he said.

My friendship with Primakov dates back to the days of my mission in Moscow when he was Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies. Subsequently he moved to other domains but we kept in touch. Both of us later took charge of our respective Foreign offices to evolve a shared vision of the post-Cold War era and consolidation of Russia-India relations.

As is known, Primakov’s tenure as Prime Minister was brief but it has left an indelible mark. A leading member of the Duma who is Primakov’s close friend, told me that during his brief period as Prime Minister he was a successful consensus builder. He had won universal praise for steering Russia out of the financial meltdown without a major catastrophe. His cautious style to provide state support to the economy was appreciated by a vast majority of Russian people who are weary of the mafia dominated social and economic change that has helped only some but caused misery to many.

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Bio-Profile :
Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

Bio-Profile :
Mrs. Shiela Gujral

Excerpts from the book "A Foreign Policy for India"

Selected Speeches

Latest Articles