Looking fit and sounding fierce after several months of illness, President Boris Yeltsin pledged yesterday to take charge of Russia again and to end the corrupt drift that has sapped the government during his absence.
"Enough is enough ... The time has come to restore order, and I shall do it," Mr. Yeltsin told parliament firmly in his annual state of the nation address.
After eight months on the political sidelines with health problems, Yeltsin used his televised speech in the marble-walled and grandly chandeliered Kremlin auditorium to impress upon the nation that he is back in control.
"The speech signifies that he is here ... that he is going to be in the Kremlin steering the ship of state and looking for results," says Andranik Migranian, a member of the presidential advisory council who helped draft the address.
It had been speculated that Yeltsin announce a Cabinet reshuffle later yesterday that would reset the government more clearly on a course of economic reform, after a lengthy period in the doldrums. But by press time, all that appeared certain was that veteran economic reformer Anatoly Chubais would become first deputy prime minister, leaving his present job as presidential chief of staff.
That change, suggests Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Kremlin political consultant, means that "Yeltsin wants not just politics in the government but policies." By placing his closest adviser and confidant at the head of economic policy, Mr. Nikonov adds, Yeltsin was showing that "now he wants to govern, he wants to control where the money goes."
At a Cabinet meeting later in the day, not attended by Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin told top officials that 1997 will bring "a new cycle of reforms," according to an Associated Press report. But he did not go beyond Yeltsin's remarks and did not announce changes.
The president's calls for a crackdown on corruption, an end to the chronic nonpayment of public-sector wages and pensions, and tighter control of tax collection met a warm welcome from one of Mr. Chubais's old allies, former acting premier Yegor Gaidar.
"The major economic and social-policy measures run in the direction of the liberal reforms that are essential in this country," says Mr. Gaidar, who introduced free-market reforms to Russia five years ago.
Blunt remarks on NATO expansion
Yeltsin's 22-minute speech capped a week of efforts to underline that he is back on the job. Each evening, the television news has shown him dressing down one senior government official after another for failing in their duties.
He pursued this theme again yesterday. "Lack of will and indifference, irresponsibility and incompetence in resolving the problems of the state - that is how the people see Russia's authorities," Yeltsin told his audience. "I must admit they are right."
Yeltsin's appearance before parliament went well. The president looked thin but seemed fully in control. Occasionally, he showed glimpses of his old fire.
He was especially blunt in reiterating Russia's opposition to NATO's plans to expand eastward to include some former Soviet-bloc nations. "Behind these plans is a desire to push Russia out of Europe and isolate her strategically," he complained.
"Attempts to create a European security system without Russia, or against its interests, have always been a failure," he warned.
But Yeltsin said he hoped his summit meeting with President Clinton in Helsinki later this month would "give fresh impetus to the search for a strategy of cooperation" between Moscow and Washington, after two years of increasingly strained relations.
Yeltsin was also blunt when he complained of corruption, which he admitted had crept into "every level of power." Promising to "resolutely punish" lawbreakers, he warned that "there must be no untouchables."
This did not impress Communist opposition leader Gennady Zyuganov. "It's just a big show, a comedy, a farce," he sniffed after listening to the speech. "There will be no follow-up. If the president wants to attack corruption, he should start at the top, with the people around him."
A test of his grip on government
Critics also doubted whether Yeltsin could keep his word on another key pledge. He has promised to make back payments to pensioners - a situation he described as "intolerable" - by the middle of this year. Back wages and pension payments have ballooned in the last year, despite the president's repeated promises during his election campaign last spring that they would be paid.
Since his election last July, though, Yeltsin has scarcely been into the office because of his health problems. Only now will his determination to get a grip on a government widely seen as aimless and ineffectual be tested.