Russia's Yeltsin walks a political tightrope in juggling top posts

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin has set Western creditors on edge with a rush of new appointments for key economic posts in his government.

Reforms are still on track, say analysts here. The changes ordered by Mr. Yeltsin Nov. 4 to 5 ``do not modify the basic lines of reform,'' said Rair Simonyan, head of a pro-reform economic consultancy firm. ``They are more technical than fundamental.''

Yeltsin on Nov. 8 named Yevgeny Yasin, one of the authors of early market reforms after the Soviet Union collapsed, as the new economic minister. The changes so far are ``a typical Yeltsin balancing act,'' commented one Western economic adviser to the government.

The reshuffle was sparked by the one-day crash of the ruble a month ago, which cost a number of top officials their jobs, including acting Finance Minister Sergei Dubinin.

He was replaced last Friday by Vladimir Panskov, a deputy minister in the former Soviet government who became a senior economic adviser on Yeltsin's presidential staff.

Mr. Panskov's background as a Soviet official - and the fact that he spent five months in jail last year before bribery charges against him were dropped for lack of evidence - spread gloom among advocates of reform.

That mood deepened when Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Alexander Shokhin - a centrist widely respected in the West - resigned over Mr. Panskov's promotion.

``The budget itself is now in question,'' Mr. Shokhin warned, noting that Panskov's office had questioned whether its strict financial targets were realistic.

But reformers were consoled when Yeltsin promoted an outspoken radical reformer, Anatoly Chubais, to the No. 2 slot in the Cabinet, first deputy prime minister, and put him in overall charge of economic policy. Mr. Chubais has been running Russia's privatization program, one of the most successful elements of the free-market reforms.

He told reporters, as he took up his new duties, that his top priority would be to steer the government's austerity budget, which aims to bring inflation down to 1.5 percent a month within a year, through the State Duma, or lower house of parliament.

``In Panskov he [Yeltsin] has a capable technocrat who will competently do what he is told to do,'' while Chubais's promotion ``shows how Yeltsin likes to have a recognized reformer in a prominent position,'' said the Western economic adviser.

Chubais, though, is the lone radical reformer in a Cabinet of more cautious ministers, and some observers here doubt how he will be able to press his views, especially if Panskov, whose Finance Ministry disburses funds, is loose with the purse strings.

Shokhin, for one, said he feared the reshuffle pointed to Yeltsin's desire to embrace the opposition. ``This is quite a dangerous thing,'' he told independent Russian TV on Sunday. ``If new people appear [in government] they will not be obliged to uphold the program that was proposed before they came.''

Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, acknowledged that ``there is the tendency, the desire to bring into the government, in the guise of professionals, some personalities who are moderates in this or that party.''

But Chubais told reporters that the overall thrust of the government, encouraged by President Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, remained reformist.

``Russia has an all-reformer government,'' he insisted.

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