Yeltsin bows to Duma, names premier it likes Weeks of bickering end in nomination of 68-year-old Primakov

September 11, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- With one short, stilted message yesterday, President Boris N. Yeltsin nominated Yevgeny M. Primakov as prime minister and instantly changed all the political rules here.

Unlikely partnerships began to form at the news that Yeltsin had abandoned his first choice, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.

The fiercest of political enemies stopped quarreling. Communists and liberal democrats competed to praise Primakov. Warnings of fascism and blood in the streets abruptly stopped, and talk turned to reconciliation and compromise.

Peace and concord settled over the fractious State Duma, which promised prompt confirmation and scheduled a vote this afternoon.

If Primakov, who has been foreign minister since 1996, is seen in the U.S. as an unregenerate soldier of the Cold War, Russians find him intelligent, reasonable, a strong defender of national interests and, perhaps most important, politically untainted.

"Good sense has prevailed this time," said Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communist leader, who had led the opposition to Chernomyrdin, who was rejected twice by the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.

And Grigory A. Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko faction, called Primakov's nomination "a move toward stabilization."

No one pretended that Primakov, who is 68, was an economic magician, or even that he had any economic experience; they only expected that he could soothe the political strife long enough to permit a constructive dialogue about economic reform.

Dispassionate conversation has been impossible since Aug. 23, when Yeltsin abruptly dismissed the government of Prime Minister Sergei V. Kiriyenko and nominated Chernomyrdin, the 60-year-old bureaucrat who was premier for five years until Yeltsin dismissed him in favor of Kiriyenko in March.

Chernomyrdin quickly became the target of a Duma enraged by the collapse of the economy. They accused him of presiding over the policies and corruption that created the conditions for the fall of the ruble and the destruction of the banking system.

And most of all they objected to his association with Boris A. Berezovsky, one of the half-dozen oligarchs who control much of the economy and who was accused of persuading Yeltsin to install Chernomyrdin to protect the interests of the financial elite. Many deputies have lost all confidence in Yeltsin as well, calling him too weak, ill and misguided to lead the nation.

Their animosity led to a dangerous battle with Yeltsin, who had the authority to dissolve the Duma and call for new elections in three months if his choice as prime minister was rejected a third time. Even the heartiest of optimists saw only trouble ahead if it came to that, and the pessimists predicted bloody protests in the streets and a gradual disintegration of Russia.

"We need a political prime minister now," Alexei I. Podberyozkin, a Duma deputy and strategist for the Communist Party, said in an interview yesterday. "Mr. Primakov is a figure who can consolidate people from different political parties around himself. can lead the country out of the crisis."

At the other end of the political spectrum, Vladimir P. Averchev, a deputy from the liberal Yabloko faction, found almost the same words to describe the nominee.

"He will be a political prime minister," Averchev said. "He's not a person from whom anyone will expect economic miracles. That's why he has a good chance to be a lasting prime minister. His principal role is to provide political stability.

"And political stability is a prerequisite to any kind of economic solution."

Primakov, who had been denying any interest in the job, went about his duties as foreign minister yesterday, gave a scheduled speech to a meeting of European parliamentarians, and was quoted as promising to pursue economic reforms.

Just before Yeltsin sent the nomination to the Duma, Chernomyrdin made an ungraceful retreat.

"I want to make it simple and clear -- I know how to do this job, I know," he said in a speech to the government. He conceded that the Duma would not confirm him, and blamed it on an attempt by the opposition to take over the country in a "creeping coup."

'Followed by blood'

"It would not just be a mistake, it would be a mistake which would be followed by blood," he said.

He said he himself had decided to withdraw his candidacy, and suggested the Primakov nomination to Yeltsin.

Few people believed that. They saw his "withdrawal" as saving face for Yeltsin, who in the past has often risked self-destruction rather than back off in a political confrontation. And it was Yavlinsky, head of the Yabloko faction, who had suggested Primakov in a Duma speech opposing Chernomyrdin on Monday.

Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, predicted Primakov will have a hands-off policy toward the economy and appoint experts to run it. Though Primakov has a degree in economics, he has had no practical experience in it.

His broad appeal -- and distance from the oligarchs -- are great assets, Trenin said.

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