Yeltsin gives way on prime minister Gaidar loses out to Chernomyrdin

December 15, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Giving in to a hostile Congress, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin dropped his support of acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar yesterday and nominated in his stead a man whose roots are in the old Soviet hierarchy.

The visibly unhappy president gave the job of prime minister to Viktor Chernomyrdin after deciding that the political costs were too high to keep Mr. Gaidar, the theoretical economist who launched Russia's radical, market-oriented reforms 11 months ago and who has become the focus of conservative fury over the country's economic state.

Mr. Chernomyrdin, whose career has been in oil and gas and who was vice minister of energy in Mr. Gaidar's Cabinet, was greeted with applause and prompt approval by the Congress of People's Deputies.

"I am for reform. I am for deepening reform -- but not through the impoverishment of the people," he said.

Mr. Chernomyrdin is the darling of those who are incensed by the quick riches being made in selling and trading while industrial production continues to fall. That steel mills should be slowing down while the streets of Moscow fill with BMWs and men in stylish suits has proved galling almost beyond words to the dominant conservative factions of the Congress. And these became emblems, in their view, of Mr. Gaidar's failings.

"I am for the market," Mr. Chernomyrdin said, "but not for the bazaar."

But the course Mr. Chernomyrdin will plot is not clear.

His comment about the impoverishment of the people suggests that he may try to preserve jobs and keep prices down, both of which would require government intervention in the economy.

But he also asked the members of Mr. Gaidar's economic team to stay in the Cabinet, although it appears likely that some will go.

In any case, Russia is now heading toward an April referendum on a new constitution, which could make permanent changes in the political landscape.

Mr. Yeltsin remains as president, but Mr. Chernomyrdin's rise has to be seen as a sign of Mr. Yeltsin's political weakness.

For two weeks, the president has been fighting the conservative members of the Congress, who saw their chance to get Mr. Gaidar. On Saturday, a sweeping compromise was reached that appeared to save his job. Even without the approval of Congress, he could have remained as acting prime minister, the position he has held since June.

But under the terms of the compromise, the Congress held a straw vote yesterday on various candidates for prime minister. Mr. Yeltsin was then to nominate his choice from among the top three vote-getters.

Many of the deputies thought the whole process was a charade, designed to give Mr. Gaidar a patina of legislative respectability.

But the straw vote showed Mr. Gaidar trailing far behind two others, Yuri Skokov, secretary of the Security Council, and Mr. Chernomyrdin.

Mr. Gaidar was still his first choice, the president told the Congress later, but it was evident that the whole compromise might fall apart if he stuck with him.

And if the compromise, which mandates a period of political accommodation through the winter, should fall apart, Russia would once more be plunged into a bitter political crisis, which could cost Mr. Yeltsin and his reform program dearly.

Mr. Gaidar said he would leave the Cabinet altogether rather than serve under Mr. Chernomyrdin.

"It's not the end of the world," he said. "I just don't want to interfere with his efforts to carry out the policies he deems necessary."

Mr. Gaidar urged other Cabinet members to stay in their posts.

"Yeltsin did not want to take on, finally, the whole responsibility" forthe state of the economy, said Vassily Lipitsky, a leader of the centrist Civic Union, which greeted Mr. Chernomyrdin's nomination enthusiastically. But snubbing the Congress would have meant just that, he said.

"It would be stupid to push Gaidar by force," said Oleg Rumyantsev, head of the commission trying to draw up the new constitution. "He can't deal with the regions. He is not a manager. We need a political manager for premier. I don't understand the West praying for Gaidar."

But a democratic reformer, Gleb Yakunin, called the new prime minister "a catastrophe."

Mr. Chernomyrdin, 54, began his career as a mechanic in an oil refinery and worked his way up through both the industry and the Communist Party, mostly in the Tyumen region of western Siberia. He took a job with the party's Central Committee in Moscow in 1978 and later was minister for gas.

He has a reputation as a good manager.

He said yesterday he believed in "a market-oriented economy, reforms rather than chaos."

"But the reforms should now take on a somewhat different hue," he said. "We should switch to another stage, by paying serious attention to production. This will enable us to do more for agriculture, for boosting output. We will rely on basic, key industries. These will help the rest to recover."

The Cabinet held its first meeting with Mr. Chernomyrdin last night. Several members said they would wait to decide about staying on.

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