Yeltsin fires without warning Cabinet dismissed

little-known reformer is named acting P.M.

Little explanation offered

March 24, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Only just risen from his sickbed, President Boris N. Yeltsin startled his nation and the world yesterday by handing Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin a medal, thanking him for five years of steadfast loyalty and then firing him.

"It was like a nuclear explosion," Georgi V. Boos, a Duma deputy and member of Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia party, said in describing the impact, as analysts scrambled for their political Geiger counters, trying to figure out what had happened.

In a short, televised statement, Yeltsin told the country that his decision to dismiss Chernomyrdin and his Cabinet was economic: He wanted to appoint energetic new people who could vigorously push ahead with reform. Few politicians or analysts believed him.

"This was completely political," said Lilia F. Shevtsova, a widely published political commentator. "This is Yeltsin reinventing himself. He has put himself at the center of everything. Once again, all politicians depend only on him."

Yeltsin offered little explanation. Some politicians speculated that he was working it out as he went along. He first announced that he would become acting prime minister. But the Constitution prohibits that, and about two hours later, his press secretary said Yeltsin had appointed 35-year-old Sergei Kiriyenko, the inexperienced but reformist energy minister, as acting prime minister.

"The resignation of the government does not mean any change of our policy course," Yeltsin said. "It means our desire to impart more energy and efficiency to economic reforms, to give them an additional impetus, a fresh momentum."

Certainly, Russia's economy has been more battered recently because of falling world oil prices and low tax collections, and the government has been severely criticized for paying wages and pensions sporadically. But Yeltsin appeared to be creating the potential for new crises even as he said he was trying to defuse the old ones.

In addition to Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin specifically dismissed First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly B. Chubais, 42, who was reviled for designing the privatization program that many Russians blamed for their economic distress. He also fired Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, 51, who was accused of building up interior troop strength without effectively combating crime and corruption.

Other ministers were asked to remain -- at least temporarily. First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Y. Nemtsov, 38, who has a reputation as a zealous reformer, was expected to keep a job in the new government, along with Yevgeny Primakov, the foreign minister.

The Russian stock market quivered at the news, but soon settled down -- proof that this is an enormous country with a seemingly endless capacity to absorb turmoil at the top.

According to Yeltsin watchers, yesterday's bombshell had more to do with the president than with anyone or anything else. After frequent illnesses -- including a throat infection that sent him to bed all last week -- Yeltsin was increasingly being described as an aging, pathetic king who was slowly losing power.

"He still has an animal-like attraction for power," said Shevtsova, who also works for the Carnegie Moscow Center. "And his personality won't allow him to turn into a political corpse."

No longer a viable candidate

Increasingly, Shevtsova said, Chernomyrdin was being mentioned as a likely successor to Yeltsin, whose term expires in 2000. "So he liquidated him," she said. "Without his post, Chernomyrdin is not a viable candidate."

Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow, said Yeltsin's growing displeasure may have been transformed into action by a television interview Sunday night. In that interview, Boris A. Berezovsky, one of the powerful bankers who exert enormous political influence, obliquely criticized Yeltsin and speculated that he would never be able to win re-election if he ran in two years.

"I think Yeltsin was fed up with the conspiracies behind his back to appoint a successor," Piontkovsky said. "I think he heard about that program and said that's enough."

On television yesterday, Yeltsin said the elections -- for parliament next year and for president in 2000 -- are enormously important, and he made it sound as if he were conferring something on Chernomyrdin. "One can say that they mean the future destiny of Russia," Yeltsin said. "So, I have asked Chernomyrdin to concentrate on political preparations for these elections."

But Piontkovsky said that was a taunt, not a benediction. "Without the post of prime minister, he is finished," Piontkovsky said. "There is no longer a politician known as Viktor Chernomyrdin."

Through the dark days

Yeltsin named Chernomyrdin prime minister in December 1992 in an effort to appease a parliament that was challenging Yeltsin's authority.

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