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What kind of bird is russa’s prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, or is he a fox?

Aesop once tried to explain the difference with the fable of a jackdaw, who was sitting on the branch of a fig-tree. Hungry though he was, the bird could see the fruit was still green. So he decided to wait.

A fox came along, and seeing the jackdaw sitting and waiting, he asked him why. When the jackdaw explained he was waiting for the figs to ripen, the fox replied he was mistaken. “You’re just living off hope. Hope feeds the illusions, not the stomach.”

There are many people in Russian politics, who, believing Primakov is the best alternative among the current flock of candidates to rule Russia, say they are waiting for the figs to ripen. It’s their view that Primakov is obliged to do the same.

There are many who have know Primakov a long time, and who say he’s no jackdaw. They think he’s a fox, clever enough to take both the figs and the bird.

The prime minister’s recent proposals on power-sharing between the executive and the parliament, and the resignation of Procurator-General Yuri Skuratov help to sort out the matter.

Supposing Primakov to have been the fox, he would have prepared his power-sharing plan carefully in advance with the president and his family, as they are most directly involved in the benefits and immunities the plan offers. Someone had to think slowly and painstakingly, probably for months, about a plan that says President Yeltsin shall be entitled to free transportation after his retirement from office, except for taxi-rides.

The same supposition suggests the plan for non-dismissal of the Duma and government, in exchange for dropping the Yeltsin impeachment process, was worked out with the Federation Council speaker, Yegor Stroyev — because he came out and explicitly endorsed it.

The Communist leadership in the Duma says one thing in public, another in private, especially about its confidence or no-confidence in the government. Almost certainly, though, they nodded in advance. Of all people, they know that the most unpredictable party to the deal is Yeltsin, and securing his word not to do something is extremely difficult. Valentin Kuptsov, the cleverest of the Communist strategists, said the no-impeachment pledge was “the biggest and most painful question” in the deal. He omitted to say what answer he’d given to that question.

Were all these birds living off hope and illusions? Not likely. But those who were cut out of the deal showed it by reacting through the media mouthpieces they control. If Yeltsin’s future could be secured without Boris Berezovsky,Anatoly Chubais, Gazprom, LUKoil, and Vladimir Potanin, then their future begins to look decidedly unripe and unpromising.

This is where Prosecutor Skuratov comes into the story. He’s been sitting long enough to know not to act on illusions. A great many of his investigations have been ripening, while he waited on the foxes above, and the foxes below, to settle what was to be done.

It’s now clear that Skuratov’s investigations were closing in on the Central Bank’s financial dealings last August, and on those, including Chubais, who guided them. It’s obvious too that Skuratov was moving against Chubais’ UES, against Gazprom,against Berezovsky, and against the other notorious transactions that gave the oligarchs their wealth and power. There is no secret about the details. They have been unearthed carefully and comprehensively for years by the Accounting Chamber.

Public trust in the honesty of this body was demonstrated in the recent St Petersburg elections. The bloc led by Yuri Boldyrev, the co-chairman of the Accounting Chamber, won hands down, trouncing the erstwhile reformers led by Galina Starovoitova, Yegor Gaidar and Chubais.

Boldyrev, it’s well known, was once in a position comparable to Skuratov’s, inside the Kremlin inspectorate. He was dismissed for uncovering corruption, and trying to prosecute it. He’s persisted through the years, and the Russian public respects him for that.

Whether Primakov was playing jackdaw or fox, waiting is something he couldn’t afford not to do, until those most likely to want to do away with him had lost their power. But for the prime minister to wait required one hope — and that rested on the Proqurator-General. Was Primakov under the illusion Skuratov could take his investigations to indictments? Was Skuratov so unsure of Primakov’s authority or intention that he leaked a letter to the prime minister, seeking the green light for his attack? Or were the targets intended by Primakov and Skuratov able to go over their heads, and neutralise them both?

Skuratov’s resignation, and the appointment of his successor, are now the touchstone, not only of Primakov’s political survival, but of Russia’s future. Those who are silent about who or what brought Skuratov down are either in on the plot, or have the duty to speak out.

How to explain the fact that the Clinton Administration, which has lectured the Russian government so thoroughly every week recently on economic verities, should be so dumbstruck when it comes to the truths of law and order? According to a spokesman at the US Embassy in Moscow yesterday, no statements on the Skuratov matter have been made by the White House, the State Department, or the Embassy. At least not yet.

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