Yeltsin offers vague words As Russian leader goes on TV, legislators move to grab power

August 29, 1998|By Kathy Lally and Will Englund | Kathy Lally and Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- A diminished Boris N. Yeltsin appeared on television last night trying to reassure a fearful nation, but his vague words and hesitant replies made him look out of touch and even unconcerned about Russia's desperate financial situation.

He was assertive on only one question: his determination to stay in power until the end of his term.

"I will not resign," Yeltsin said in the interview, which had been taped earlier in the day. "I will work the full term given to me by the constitution. New presidential elections will be held in 2000. But I will not participate in them."

Aside from that, he ignored the furious politicking that has raged since Sunday night, when he fired the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sergei V. Kiriyenko and nominated Viktor S. Chernomyrdin to take his place.

As Russia defaulted on its debts and the ruble collapsed, opposition leaders in parliament have demanded sweeping new powers from a president they see as fatally weakened. They want to make Yeltsin pay before Russia can start patching itself together again.

He neither addressed those demands nor did he discuss his reactions to proposals to put the economy in reverse, with price controls and other policies of the Soviet era.

"First of all, it seems to me that we must concentrate now on the fulfillment of the program that has been prepared, the program on the stabilization period, and, secondly, settle the question of personnel," he said. "These are the two main, key moments. If we cope with them, we will cope with the problem."

He gave no hint what those programs might be. He spoke slowly, as if he were having difficultyorganizing his thoughts. His face looked puffy and unhealthy. But he spoke with conviction about his hold on the presidency.

"It is very difficult to remove me," he said, "and considering my character, it is practically impossible."

The situation was growing bleaker. The license of Russia's third-largest bank, ABS Agro, was revoked yesterday when it ran out of money.

On a small electronic currency exchange that was still operating yesterday, the ruble fell to 13 to the dollar -- worth less than half what it was two weeks ago.

In Moscow, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov told shopkeepers to post their prices in dollar equivalents, so they wouldn't have to be constantly changing them. Conversion to rubles at the prevailing rate will then be done at the cash register.

Parliament's demands

At the big gray State Duma building in the center of Moscow -- once the home of the Soviet State Planning Committee -- parliament's demands for economic and political changes moved closer to reality. They have been condensed into two different documents, subject to negotiations with Chernomyrdin's and Yeltsin's staffs.

One, outlining a new economic program, has been essentially agreed to by all parties. It calls for the printing of enough money to pay the government's debts, credits to support struggling industries, controls over currency, regulation of prices, and the nationalization of some banks.

The plan will certainly stoke inflation; potentially it could lead to the shortages and black markets that prevailed in the Soviet era. Restrictions on the conversion of the ruble could make it especially difficult for small businesses to operate.

The plan was approved "without a hitch," said Mikhail Belyak, press secretary to Gennady Seleznyov, the Duma's speaker.

"It would be naive," said Yeltsin last night, "to say that we will take measures and so on, and that people will not suffer. I cannot say that prices will not grow."

Yeltsin, though, gave the distinct impression that he had little to do with the actual planning. "We must," he said, "strictly comply with what is written there."

The other document, though, concerns a redistribution of political power that would probably do less damage to the country but is nevertheless much more likely to wreck the three-way negotiations going on involving parliament, Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin's staff.

Parliament has insisted that it be given the right to confirm the nominations of top Cabinet officials, and to block the dismissal of the government. The president would also lose his ability to issue unilateral decrees dealing with tax legislation and the budget.

Yeltsin, who has wielded enormous powers under a constitution approved after he ousted the previous parliament with tanks in 1993, has resisted the proposals.

Near a compromise

Negotiators were said to be near a compromise last night. They were to meet again today to try to hammer out the details. But although Yeltsin said last night that he expects Chernomyrdin to take more power into his hands than he did in his first term as prime minister, it is not clear that the president would extend that invitation to the Communist-dominated Duma as well.

Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communists in the Duma, was still saying yesterday that Yeltsin must resign if his party is to support the Chernomyrdin nomination Monday; otherwise, the whole deal is off.

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