Yeltsin roars back into view, vows to shake up government Fit-looking Russian head addresses Parliament, standing, for 25 minutes

March 07, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Reasserting authority after months of ill health, an aggressive, fit-looking President Boris N. Yeltsin bounded back into public view yesterday with promises to install economic reforms and shake up his own government.

The old combative Yeltsin, a veteran of wily and unlikely political comebacks, was evident in yesterday's nationally televised address to both chambers of Parliament.

Yeltsin chastised his own government as lazy, irresponsible and even corrupt.

As if the government did not serve at his behest, he distanced dTC himself from what has happened in the power vacuum of his eight-month absence from the Kremlin. He blamed the government for chronic social and economic problems, failure to pay wages and pervasive evidence of corruption affecting Russia's transition from the Soviet system and the market economy.

"Enough is enough. The time has come to restore order, and I will do that," said the 66-year-old president.

"The structure and composition of the government must be changed. Energetic and competent people will come and I will announce these changes in the coming days."

Yeltsin, recovering most recently from a bout with pneumonia, has been back at the Kremlin for several weeks. But apart from some brief, stiff televised appearances, yesterday's speech was the first live performance since his re-election in July.

And it was the most certain sign yet of his recovery.

In contrast to his stiffness and slurred speech a few weeks ago, Yeltsin strode confidently to the podium, where for 25 minutes he stood without apparent effort to read excerpts from his 65-page State of the Nation address to the Russian Parliament.

"His physical shape was very reassuring. That is a political event in itself. It puts an end to the discussion of his ability to lead," observed Andrei Piontkowsky, director of Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies.

In a clear strong voice, Yeltsin pounced on broad spectrum of issues.

He said he would launch a crusade against corruption and the misappropriation of funds, especially at the highest levels, where officials have gotten "fat."

He said he would use his veto to stop his opponents' demands for constitutional changes to weaken his power because of his poor health.

He promised more vigorous army reform and restated Russia's tough line against NATO's eastward expansion plans.

"NATO expansion can become a fateful decision which will cost the peoples of Europe very dearly. We shall do everything possible not to allow a new division of Europe," he said.

But the nation's worst problem, Yeltsin said, is the battered economy. Tight budgetary discipline and tax reforms that would fill government coffers are the key to a turnaround in the economy, he said.

"We are still struggling in a flood of problems. We haven't been able to reach the far bank," he said, acknowledging that "most of the promises given to people, especially on social issues, have not been fulfilled."

Though he didn't announce any specific changes in his administration, he promised that a shake-up within days would provide the right leadership to define and carry out his reforms.

Anatoly B. Chubais, Yeltsin's chief of staff and the architect of many of Russia's liberal economic reforms, is widely expected to rejoin the government as first deputy prime minister.

From that post, just under Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, Chubais is expected to orchestrate the new round of Yeltsin reforms.

The package of reforms Yeltsin promised yesterday was not well-defined. But, said Piontkowsky, Chubais is the "proper choice of a skilled administrator and economist" to rescue the government from its severe drift.

Most pressing on the agenda will be the issue of chronic non-payment of wages and pensions.

Yeltsin said yesterday that he was "ashamed" of how low the quality of Russian life has fallen, and that a planned nationwide strike this month was justified. But the strike, he said, is an "alarm signal" that economic reform must get back on track.

He promised that unpaid pensions and wages would be paid in full by the end of June -- a promise identical to one he made and broke last spring during his re-election campaign.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, runner-up to Yeltsin in July's presidential election, was critical of his rival, calling the president's performance "miserable, helpless, buffoonery without any real content behind it.

"I would like to hear from [Yeltsin] why there is no economic growth. And why pensions, social payments and wages are not being paid," Zyuganov said.

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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