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According to a fresh Moscow anecdote, President Boris Yeltsin comes out of the banya feeling energetic. Over the protests of his driver, he insists on taking the wheel of his limousine.

But he drives too fast, and unable to stop in time for a red light, he crashes into another limousine. That one is occupied by gangsters. They tell their driver to get out, and go check who is driver the other car. “If we are kruche (tough guys),” they say, “we’ll collect a lot of money for the damage. If they are kruche, we’ll drive away.”

The gangsters’ driver goes over to the car, takes one look, runs back, and hits the accelerator. “Hey, what happened?” his pals ask. “I don’t know who was in the back,” he replies. “But Yeltsin is their driver.”

It has been a month now since Yeltsin sacked his government, and there has been na’end of speculation about who is in the back seat.

What is missing from the public speeches, private comments, and corridor gossip — from Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and his ministers, as well as from Yeltsin and his family — is which way they think the limousine of state is headed.

For a state on the edge of international default, facing trade war in the United States, and shooting war in Yugoslavia, that silence is deafening.

Stepashin, and his economic policy deputies Nikolai Aksyonenko and Victor Khristenko, could have afforded to make a clean break with the tax measures the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has demanded, especially the gasoline station tax. That is because it was their predecessors, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and First Deputy Prime Minister Yury Maslyukov, who accepted them, and pronounced them such a good idea

The stupidity of Primakov for proposing to tax ordinary Russian even harder to pay debts to the IMF incurred by such hated figures as Anatoly Chubais and Sergei Kiriyenko — raising inflation and adding to corruption— should have been a tempting target for the Kremlin. Instead, all Aksyonenko could say was that the IMF conditions must be accepted “because the country is on the edge of default.”

Khristenko offered an even lamer excuse. He said the gas tax should be enacted because it aims to collect only what the vendors are already evading in their tax payments.

These are cynical claims. They make plain that, like Primakov, their economic priorities are to protect the cashflows of the gas and fuel sector, what is left of the bank oligarchies, and their borrow-ing positions abroad. Reviving domestic food and industrial production, and boosting exports from the non-energy sector aren’t of real concern to Yeltsin’s new government, or his old one.

This is also why Stepashin, Aksyonenko, and their new trade minister, Mikhaii Fradkov, kept mum last : week, when the American government declared a new round of trade war against Russian steel. Primakov and his trade minister did no better in defending Russian hot-rolled steel against a trumped-up case for dumping duties staged by the US steel industry and the and the Clinton Administration

But when the American industry filed another case last week, alleging dumping of Russian cold-rolled steel, not a squeak came out of the Russian government. If Stepashin had wanted to score a point against the erstwhile popularity of Primakov, and appeal for support from Russia’s metals exporters, he missed his big chance The fact is he didn’t even see it passing by.

But more remarkable than the cowardice of Russia’s economic policymakers is the quiet, and effective rebellion of Russia’s military command against official cravenness in Yugoslavia.

According to the version of special emissary Victor Chernomyrdin’s performance in the Yugoslav negotiations that has been leaked to the Anglo-American press, Chernomyrdin blustered and delayed, but in the end gave in to every demand the NATO side made. In return, he go no concessions whatsoever.

What happened next is unprecedented. For the first time in Yeltsin’s term of office — perhaps for the first time in half a century — the Russian military command audibly accused the Kremlin of betraying the national interest in war.

In March 1993, the refusal of the Defence Ministry to implement Yeltsin’s proposed emergency decree was an act of veto. The delay in ordering forces to attack the Supreme Soviet the following October was a dissent. But this month’s attack on the terms which Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin agreed to with NATO was a revolt.

It started with a discreet shaking of General Leonid Ivashov’s head. It grew more voluble when the generals briefed the Duma in closed session. It has now burst aloud. Chernomyrdin is publicly blaming the attack on the Communist Party, but he is not so foolish as to believe it

There is a logic to rebellion which Yeltsin recognizes full well. He thought he detected it in Primakov, and that is why he got rid of him on May 12. Yeltsin won’t appreciate the irony, but ‘it*. departed prime minister, now receiving therapy in Switzerland, never dared what Ivashov and his fellow generals did this month. There are too many of them for Yeltsin to purge. The charge they have laid is too grave, and the evidence too obvious to everyone, for this challenge to be buried as meekly as Primakov allowed himself to be.

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