Yeltsin's purge Russia: Surprise ouster of Prime Minister Chernomyrdin raises questions about Kremlin stability.

March 24, 1998

DURING his long career, first as a red satrap and then as post-communist Russia's first president, Boris N. Yeltsin has been full of surprises. Nevertheless, his stunning decision to unceremoniously fire Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and his Cabinet raises serious questions about the 67-year-old Kremlin leader's soundness.

Except for the first year of erratic reforms, Mr. Chernomyrdin, who became prime minister in December 1992, has been at the helm of government during Russia's free-market experiment. He is a colorless but capable bureaucrat, whose caution served to counterbalance Mr. Yeltsin's impulsiveness. His ouster ushers Russia into uncharted waters.

The purge of top aides -- from leading reformer Anatoly B. Chubais to hard-line Interior Minister Anatoly S. Kulikov -- leaves the Kremlin in the hands of little-known and untested advisers. Even though this is unlikely to affect Russia's foreign policy, the world ought to be worried.

Mr. Chernomyrdin was regarded as a leading contender for the presidency in 2000, when Mr. Yeltsin's term expires. Because Russia lacks a working political party system, his removal from government will make a campaign for the No. 1 job more difficult, even though he retains close ties to the powerful business elite.

Some analysts believe Mr. Yeltsin may be about to renege on his promise not to seek another term. That would explain the strange goings-on in the Kremlin but would be no cause for jubilation among those who want Russia to continue its development into a normal constitutional society.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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