Kremlin tumult complicates its response to NATO

President Yeltsin's political star dims as his likely successorcancels US trip.

Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov is legendary for his acute political instincts, and demonstrated them amply by turning his plane around in midair on the way to Washington Tuesday night.

The premier thus deftly avoided a confrontation with President Clinton over NATO air strikes against Russia's ally, Yugoslavia, while having to beg for loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

But stepping off the plane to applause from the Communist opposition, Mr. Primakov walked right into a more tricky situation on native soil.

Once-invincible President Boris Yeltsin is under unprecedented assault - illness, possible impeachment, a rebellious parliament, and corruption probes targeting his aides. Primakov, a consummate survivor of various Soviet regimes, must summon all his savvy to avoid alienating Yeltsin - and thus getting fired - while placating the Communist opposition.

There is increasing speculation that Mr. Yeltsin may leave office before his remaining 18 months are up and that Primakov, seen by observers as his most likely successor, will stay on to oversee new elections.

"Psychologically, morally, and politically Yeltsin is on the defensive," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based research center. "This could be his last battle."

Over the past six months, Russia's first post-Soviet president has barely wielded the near autocratic powers he accumulated during seven years at the top. Yeltsin has become a mere figurehead as he recovers from recurring health problems.

Just how vulnerable Yeltsin has grown became evident last week when the normally pliant Federal Council (the upper house of parliament) reinstated Prosecutor-General Yuri Skuratov against the president's wishes.

Yeltsin's inner circle has good reason to fear Mr. Skuratov, who blew the whistle in February on shady practices at the Central Bank and has targeted Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia's richest men and a onetime confidant of the Yeltsin clan.

On Tuesday, the prosecutor's men did the unthinkable: Apparently emboldened by a visiting Swiss prosecutor probing high-level corruption, they seized documents at the Kremlin looking for evidence that may implicate members of Yeltsin's entourage.

Among the allegations are that a Swiss company, Mabetex, bribed senior Russian officials for contracts to renovate government buildings, including the Kremlin. Russian newspapers have speculated that the president's closest aides and advisers, including his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, may be under scrutiny.

Yeltsin faces a difficult dilemma: Does he distance himself from people close to him, or allow his reputation be further sullied in the public eye? Most observers believe he would opt for the latter. "This presents the president with a difficult choice. Either sack his own daughter ... or begin a war against his enemies," opined the influential Kommersant Daily newspaper.

The big winner may well be Primakov.

Although some political observers suspect his own anticorruption drive is linked to Skuratov's, Primakov has cultivated a public image of remaining above fray. Primakov has thus far remained in favor with Yeltsin, who has a propensity for firing anyone perceived as a threat.

The one point on which the premier has drawn heavy criticism was for placing loyalty to the Serbs and anger with NATO above negotiations for more IMF loans, needed to save Russia from collapse.

Kommersant Daily railed yesterday against Primakov for sacrificing millions of dollars in potential loans by cancelling the Washington trip. The ruble, in response, tumbled to 26 to the dollar in unofficial trading, its lowest level since the financial crisis began in August.

But many financial insiders believe the outline of a deal was already worked out. Primakov hinted as much yesterday, saying he planned to meet IMF chief Michel Camdessus in the next few days.

"The Kosovo problem is one thing but our talks with the IMF and a wish to reach an agreement with them is another thing," Primakov told reporters. "I am expecting him in Moscow."

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