Chernomyrdin ­ the Great Survivor in a Troubled Epoch:
Viktor Chernomyrdin's Incarnation as a "Red Director" Was One of Many Transformations That This Great Economic and Political Survivor Passed Through

Vladimir Putin Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia's prime minister from 1992 to 1998 and a figure who bridged two epochs in Russian politics died at the age of 72 on Wednesday. By his appearance and biography, he belonged to the Soviet epoch. By his actions and policies, he was a man of the new Russia, with both its good and bad sides. In some ways, he played a very positive role, helping Russia to "swallow" the market reforms and close its eyes to the probably unavoidable injustices that came with these reforms.

In December 1992, when voted into power by the left-dominated Supreme Soviet (the unwieldy "transitive" Russian Parliament he would destroy on Boris Yeltsin's orders less than a year later), Chernomyrdin, with his white hair and baggy suit, looked like a man of the past. At the time, a lot of Western media outlets tried to present him as a symbol of Russia's diverting from the path of reform. However, behind the mask of an aging "red director," one later found a resolute supporter of the free market who continued the reforms started by the liberal economist Yegor Gaidar in 1992 and was actually praised by Gaidar several times for his economic policies.

In public, he produced the impression of a "man of the people," a real Russian "muzhik" playing the accordion and preferring vodka to wine. A closer look, however, revealed a refined consumerist with a passion for luxurious cars and little sympathy for the people unable to adapt to twenty-first century realities. A closer look still revealed a champion of unfettered big business and a supporter of the media tycoons' hold over the press. It was during Chernomyrdin's tenure that the famous Russian oligarchs of the 1990s (Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky) became rich and powerful. The most controversial privatization deals (such as the famous "loans for shares" swap of 1995, which made Vladimir Potanin a billionaire) were concluded during the premiership of Chernomyrdin. However, he never presided over these shady deals himself, relegating this dubious "honor" to his first Vice-Premier Anatoly Chubais and the latter's friend Alfred Kokh.

In public, Chernomyrdin preferred the image of a peacemaker and often indeed played that role pretty well. The most notorious case, which won him praise from many human rights activists, was the liberation of hostages in 1995. At the time, Chechen terrorist warlord Shamil Basayev and his men took several hundred people hostage in the town of Budyonnovsk, south Russia. Chernomydrin negotiated with Basayev by phone in front of television cameras. In return for safe passage back to Chechnya, Basayev released most of the hostages, having killed or used as human shields more than 100 people. The result, just as it was the case with many other actions by Chernomyrdin, was mixed. On the one hand, the hostages were released. On the other, the impunity of Basayev's successful terrorist raid inspired many other Chechens and non-Chechens to commit similar acts in future.

When facing public criticism of his pro-market policies or reading and watching the exposés of the corrupt practices of Chubais, Berezovsky or his other protégés, whom he secretly shielded, but never befriended in public, Chernomyrdin donned a philosophical mien and said that certain bending of the rules was inevitable during the transition period.

Chernomyrdin's soft-spoken laisser-faire attitude, however, was quickly transformed into quick, sometimes cruel action when the very foundations of the power of the new Russian elite were questioned. From September to October 1993 he was the driving force behind the action of evicting the unwieldy Russian parliament members from their so-called White House, which after its bombing in 1993 became the office of the Russian government. The action, started as a simple blockade of the parliament building by the government-loyal policemen, degenerated into violent mess on October 3, 1993 mostly due to the actions of extremists among the parliament's supporters. When they tried to counterattack and seize power in the country, Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin ordered armed action which left several hundred people dead. Several months later, Chernomyrdin felt no qualms about moving his staff into the previously blood-stained White House.

The period when Chernomyrdin was prime minister is often presented as some kind of "golden age" of Russian press freedom. His tolerance of the media tycoon-operated NTV television station and its use of his image in its famous Kukly (Dolls) program is often cited as evidence. But was it really the case? Chernomyrdin could be tolerant to jokes, but when serious business was involved he was no weakling. In 1997, when Izvestia, the main news daily in the country at the time, reprinted an unconfirmed report from the French daily Le Monde that Chernomyrdin had billions of dollars in foreign bank accounts, Chernomyrdin was visibly angry. Somehow, a few days after the incident, the Lukoil company, Izvestia's main shareholder, started a major reshuffle of Izvestia's staff, removing the newspaper's legendary editor-in-chief, Viktor Golembiovsky. Most of Izvestia's team of journalists also left the newspaper from 1997 to 1998.

In spring 1998 Chernomyrdin suddenly resigned from his position as prime minister, clearly anticipating the coming financial crisis. The Russian state was unable to pay loans it had taken in order to finance Yeltsin's presidential campaign of 1996. Sergei Kiriyenko, the new prime minister with no reputation or experience at the time, was obviously allotted the role of "kamikaze," which he gently performed in August 1998, announcing the state's default on its obligations to foreign and domestic debtors. In September 1998, Chernomyrdin's attempt to return to the premier's position now cleaned and cleared by Kiriyenko, was obviously supported by Yeltsin. But that attempt was foiled by the communist-dominated State Duma, which finally realized Chernomyrdin was no Soviet "red director." Since then, Chernomyrdin was squeezed out of big politics, performing relatively minor state functions, such as his stint as the Russian ambassador to Ukraine.

In fact, being a "red director" was indeed part of Chernomyrdin's life, but it was just one link in a long chain of transformations, which this great political and economic survivor passed through during his lifetime. Since his modest beginnings in a poor Siberian village near Orenburg, Chernomyrdin always found a way to get the most from what Russia had to offer. In his younger years, he combined a workman's job with technical education. At the age of 30, in 1968, he started his career in the Communist Party. By 1985, not even 50 years old, he was the minister of the Soviet natural gas industry. By 1990 he had turned his ministry into a powerful semi-state company known since then under the name of Gazprom. In 1992 ­ a sudden career elevation to the position of prime minister... The transformation from a party bureaucrat to an entrepreneurial capitalist happened in late 1980s. The communist-dominated Duma realized this only in 1998.

A great survivor himself, he required excellent survival skills of the people he happened to lead during difficult times. He will be remembered for that.

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