Yeltsin dismisses Primakov

He challenges Duma on eve of hearings to impeach him

Stalemate, paralysis loom

Popular premier's loss threatenss economy, Kosovo peace process

May 13, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin threw Russia into political chaos yet again yesterday, dismissing popular Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov and presenting lawmakers with a do-or-die challenge on the eve of impeachment proceedings.

A few hours later, Yeltsin warned that Russia may pull out as as mediator in the Kosovo crisis.

The sudden actions opened the way for a constitutional crisis, unraveled the stability that Primakov had achieved, cast doubt on international help for Russia's economy and threatened to upset the Balkans peace process.

Although the president asserted that he fired Primakov because of his failure to improve the economy, Yeltsin nominated as a replacement Interior Minister Sergei V. Stepashin, the nation's top policeman who knows little about economics and everything about intense personal loyalty.

The warning to NATO was seen as an answer to hard-line foes in parliament who accuse Yeltsin of bowing to the Western alliance instead of arming Yugoslavia, a fellow Slavic country.

Yeltsin-watchers said the president's actions could be interpreted only as the desperate acts of a waning politician who is trying to hold on to power to the very end, no matter what the cost to the country.

"He was driven not by considerations of the future of the country," said Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Center for Strategic Studies here, "but only by considerations for his own security and political legacy."

In firing his 69-year-old prime minister, Yeltsin, 68, has created a crisis in a period of relative stability. He did so as the government was desperately striving for unanimity so it could persuade the International Monetary Fund to rescue a wretched economy and at a time when war in Yugoslavia has unsettled a jittery and resentful population.

Primakov is the third prime minister to be sacked by Yeltsin in 14 months. Analysts said Primakov's dismissal, long rumored, was partly out of jealousy. His approval rating in polls has topped 60 percent, compared with single digits for Yeltsin.

Added to that were articles of impeachment, which have been in parliament for months as Yeltsin's hard-line foes delayed debate.

"He is struggling for his legacy," said Sergei Kolmakov, a political observer with the Polity Foundation. "What he sees in Primakov and impeachment are attacks on that legacy, the total rejection of what he sees as his achievements and good deeds for the country."

In firing Primakov, who had been in office eight months, Yeltsin was also flinging a risky challenge at the Communist-led State Duma, the lower house of parliament that is scheduled to take up the impeachment charges today.

There is scant support in the Duma for Stepashin, 47, and under the Russian constitution, the president can dissolve the Duma and set new elections if the lower house rejects his nominee for prime minister three times.

Here Yeltsin was taking a huge risk. The constitution also forbids the president from dissolving the Duma if the lower house has formally begun the impeachment process. This provision could serve as a motivation for Duma deputies to muster the 300 votes for impeachment as quickly as possible, rather than take up Stepashin's nomination.

Yeltsin had nearly reached the point of dissolving parliament last fall, when the Duma twice rejected the nomination of Viktor S. Chernomyrdin as prime minister. But just before the third vote, Primakov, a former Soviet bureaucrat then serving as foreign minister, emerged as the only candidate that nearly everyone could agree on.

Normally calm politicians described the situation in deeply troubled voices.

Yeltsin had succeeded in turning everyone against him by dispatching Primakov, who had managed to maintain peace and keep inflation relatively low after last summer's collapse of the economy prompted widespread predictions of unrest and starvation, the politicians said.

"Now all factions will insist on impeachment," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, who heads the centrist Our Home is Russia faction. "Now we have two sides, as we did in 1993 and as we did in 1991. And each side is obstinate."

In 1993, a standoff between Yeltsin and the parliament resulted in the president sending tanks to shell the legislature. And 1991 was the year of the coup, when tanks rumbled through the streets of Moscow, setting off the events that resulted in the Soviet Union falling apart.

"I think President Yeltsin made a big mistake," said Gennady Selyeznov, the speaker of the Duma, "maybe the biggest mistake he's ever made."

Even Grigory A. Yavlinsky, the liberal politician who has criticized Primakov for allowing the economy to stagnate, said Yeltsin had threatened the nation's stability.

"I do not have the impression that this decision has been prompted by the desire to strengthen order and stability in the country," he told reporters yesterday.

Other politicians said Yeltsin had set off an unpredictable chain of events.

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