Yeltsin Ousts Team to Reset Russia - and Assert Himself

Prime minister and others were fired yesterday in move seen as 'normal.' Yeltsin may be eyeing reelection in 2000.

In the unprecedented firing of his government on Monday - including his trusty prime minister - Boris Yeltsin lived up to his reputation for an erratic political style.

This latest move, coming from Russia's first president of the post-Soviet era, came across as the political equivalent of a huge bomb, at least initially.

But analysts said Mr. Yeltsin behaves as Russian leaders have since Peter the Great - with dominating power and reforms that go only so far. Besides, his Draconian move is acceptable under the 1993 Constitution.

In a Western democracy, such a wholesale dismissal might have tripped alarms. In the world's largest country, however, it was politics as usual, even if it confirmed Russia is ruled essentially by one frail man.

It hardly seems stabilizing to get rid of the main economic reformer, First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, and take out of the political limelight the man widely deemed Yeltsin's political heir, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Yet Yeltsin's real reasons for pink-slipping his team may lie in how he wants to shape his own future.

Under the Constitution, a president has sweeping powers, and calls for calm by even Mr. Chernomyrdin seem to indicate that economic reform and foreign policy will remain unchanged.

"This doesn't necessarily put the country in a precarious position," says one diplomat. "In my opinion there really isn't a crisis here. By all measures of Western government, this of course would be a crisis. But quite frankly this is normal political culture in Russia, which has been dominated by the machinations of a supreme leader."

Why did he do it?

A consensus is emerging among political analysts that the move was linked to jockeying for presidential elections in 2000, rather than Yeltsin's official line that he needed a fresh team to tackle five years of free market reforms that have not helped ordinary Russians. But the jury is still out as to whether Yeltsin was aiming to isolate Chernomyrdin as a rival or groom him as a successor by distancing him from mistakes of the government.

Yeltsin on Monday conferred upon Chernomyrdin one of Russia's highest honors as he freed him "to concentrate on political preparations" for the 2000 vote. But several analysts believe that Chernomyrdin was relegated to the political wilderness by being removed from his high-profile government post.

"Yeltsin is jealous of Chernomyrdin," says Igor Bunin, director of the Center of Political Technologies, a Moscow-based independent think tank.

Besides Chernomyrdin and Mr. Chubais, Yeltsin also kicked out hard-line Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, who reportedly harbored presidential aspirations and irked Yeltsin with his hawkish statements.

Although the unexpected decree fired his team, Yeltsin asked other Cabinet members to stay on for the time being, and quickly named a new first deputy prime minister, who will be acting prime minister.

That is Sergei Kiriyenko, a young technocrat who has been fuel and energy minister since late last year. Mr. Kiriyenko is close to the other main economic reformer, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a potential presidential candidate whose fate is still unclear.

Kiriyenko is expected to continue the current economic reforms, although he is unlikely to get the endorsement of the lower house of parliament, or Duma, as permanent premier because of his lack of experience and Nemtsov affiliation. Yeltsin did not say when he would announce members of a new government.

Some analysts saw Monday's bombshell as in keeping with Yeltsin's propensity toward unpredictable showmanship rather than mature decisionmaking on better governance.

Since his 1996 heart surgery, Yeltsin has had several absences due to illness, and often bounces back by strengthening his position with a political juggling act such as firing ministers.

Not being a lame duck

This latest surprise occurred just days after Yeltsin returned to work on Friday after being ill for several days.

"This is consistent President Yeltsin behavior," says one diplomat. "Yeltsin is doing everything he can to show that he is not a lame duck president, short of announcing his candidacy for 2000."

The curt announcement at 10 a.m. local time initially shook Russia's financial markets in a struggling economy dependent on foreign aid and investment. But they recovered somewhat after Yeltsin's insistence that foreign policy and economic reform would remain the same.

There were no hints of such a major change, although in hindsight Kremlin watchers pointed to the president's criticism on Saturday of the government for huge delays in paying state sector wages worth more than $1.1 billion.

In an article, the financial newspaper Russki Telegraf on Saturday speculated that such a move would occur to preempt an expected vote of no-confidence by the Communist opposition majority in the Duma, on April 9.

The Duma is basically a fangless institution, however, and the dismissals seemed to be more a product of Yeltsin's manipulation of his own inner circle, analysts say.

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