Yeltsin's future in doubt as economy gets worse Russian president's spokesman denies that he's resigning

August 28, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- With the Kremlin denying -- repeatedly -- that President Boris N. Yeltsin was on the verge of resigning, Russia tumbled onward into its financial collapse yesterday.

From the West came warnings that Russia has no choice but to push ahead on reform with renewed vigor. Politicians close to the acting prime minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, talked about a rapid retreat instead, to Soviet-era economics -- with price controls, a nonconvertible ruble and "industrial policy."

But little changed. Currency trading in the dollar was halted until Monday. Another day went by without completion of an "anti-crisis program" by a special joint commission, though both the Kremlin and Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, said preliminary drafts included unacceptable provisions.

Chernomyrdin said last night, "Now I have sorted out the situation in full and now can say: Although it is certainly not very simple, it is absolutely controllable."

But he gave no sense of what he intends to do to bring Russia's catastrophic economic collapse to a halt. Nor was it clear how he can act with any decisiveness -- without a Cabinet, with a fractious parliament hungering for power, and with a boss who has remained out of sight in a hunting lodge 60 miles from Moscow.

One Russian newspaper had a headline yesterday that read simply, "He's alive," above a picture of Yeltsin. But Moscow is full of speculation that Yeltsin is either too ill or too powerless, or both, to hold onto his job. Newspapers are speculating about whether Chernomyrdin can ease him toward resigning -- which would put Chernomyrdin in power until elections can be held within three months.

But Yeltsin's press secretary, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said on television, "The president's resignation has been and is out of the question. I would like the Russian public, the Russian and the foreign media to calm down."

Later, his office released an official elaboration, calling reports that Yeltsin had signed an undated letter of resignation "idle inventions without the slightest foundation."

Yeltsin, who has been counted out many times before, has meetings scheduled today in the Kremlin with Chernomyrdin and Yevgeny Primakov, the foreign minister, as well as with the president of Bulgaria.

On Tuesday, he is to begin a three-day summit in Moscow with President Clinton, who is sure to push the necessity of more economic reform.

But Russia's collapse is about more than presidential meetings and political infighting and the ups and downs (all downs these days) of the stock market.

Yesterday, still camped in the drizzle outside the Russian White House, where they have been since the first flutters of anxiety began wafting through the economy last spring, were the unpaid and striking coal miners.

Angry miners

The miners, whose anger with the Soviet system helped sweep Yeltsin toward power seven years ago, today have the misfortune to exemplify almost everything that has gone wrong since.

The mines where they worked were hopeless Communist-era dinosaurs, which the government privatized in ways that always seemed to ensure that the managers kept their hands on all the money. The managers stopped paying their workers, so the West stepped in and lent $500 million to restructure the industry. least half that money was stolen, and none of it ended up with the miners.

Months went by, and wage arrears mounted. The miners were cheated once. And now they are being cheated again, because every day that goes by the money owed to them is worth less and less, as the value of the ruble plunges.

"From the beginning, I said no one would get anything," said Vladimir Kopytov, from the Kizel region of the Ural Mountains, who has been out of work since December and is owed six months' pay. "This pyramid they built has collapsed."

"We can't in any way be happy. It is like a complete collapse," said Boris Bragin from Vorkuta, who is owed 27,500 rubles -- which used to be worth about $4,500, but is now incalculably smaller. "We want to take power into our own hands. To call out all of Russia, but without weapons. We don't need another civil war."

"We don't believe anyone anymore -- not Zyuganov, not Yavlinsky," said Kopytov, referring to the leader of the Communists and the head of the opposition liberal party, Grigory Yavlinsky. "Yeltsin's a political corpse; not even a puppet -- a mummy."

"Go to Vorkuta," said Vasily Kochekov, a huge man who is owed 16,500 rubles. "You can see how the whole north is being destroyed. From the train you can see deserted villages. The thieves should be taken to prison."

"I think everything will blow up long before winter," said Kopytov. "The sooner the better."

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