MOSCOW -- Russia's ever-erratic President Boris N. Yeltsin removed three Cabinet ministers yesterday, making good on a threat issued two days earlier to punish the "culprits" of last year's lackluster economic performance.
But the 67-year-old head of state explained the removal of the three officials as a "transfer to other positions," throwing in doubt whether his action was punitive or preparatory to new promotions.
Those removed from the nearly 50-member Cabinet were: Transportation Minister Nikolai Tsakh, Education Minister Vladimir Kinelev, and Valery Serov, the deputy prime minister in charge of relations with other former Soviet republics.
Yeltsin abruptly left the Kremlin gathering yesterday without issuing any reshuffle orders.
On Thursday, Yeltsin met with the full Cabinet and began a long-delayed assessment of 1997 economic performance by announcing that there would be three fewer ministers in office by the end of the meeting.
Igor Shabdurasulov, a government spokesman, told journalists yesterday that the dismissals "cannot but be related" to Yeltsin's criticism of the economy at the Kremlin meeting Thursday.
Russia's first year of even modest economic growth since the Soviet Union's collapse has withered to insignificance because of the financial turmoil in Asia and because the government has failed to collect taxes or operate within budgetary restraints.
Decisions on who will replace the three ministers and what work they will be assigned might be discussed at a meeting tomorrow between Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, the Interfax news agency reported, quoting "informed sources."
Serov was in charge for the past three years of relations with countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a post-Soviet alliance that has done little more than create costly new bureaucratic structures.
Tsakh's removal may be blamed on the gross inefficiency of Russia's extensive railroad system. Kinelev was likely chosen to take the fall for the nation's academic decline.
Yeltsin has a history of puzzling personnel moves, which analysts say is his strategy for keeping key aides on their toes.
A year ago, he sought to streamline the Cabinet, which then included more than 50 ministers, commission chairmen and advisers.
The reorganization brought in influential reformers Anatoly B. Chubais and Boris Y. Nemtsov as first deputy prime ministers, but less than a handful of posts were actually eliminated in that shake-up.
Chubais' portfolio was trimmed last fall after he was tainted by a bribery scandal. Nemtsov was weakened after becoming a vulnerable target for the opposition by virtue of his designation by Yeltsin as the Kremlin heir apparent.