Yeltsin's Musical Chairs

If anyone wondered whether Boris Yeltsin was still fully in charge, his snap reshuffling of the government this week provided at least a partial answer. By dismissing Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and other top office holders, the Russian president reasserted that he's No. 1.

But whether he, or anyone else, has yet got a firm grip on the economic issues besetting Russia - that's another matter. Mr. Yeltsin said he wanted less political infighting in the government and more effective economic reform.

Effective government, and particularly efficient tax collection, is a work in progress in democratizing Russia. Crucial economic reforms, such as selling off Russia's vast state enterprises, stir sharp controversy. Some government ministers - like arch reformer Anatoly Chubais - and some powerful Yeltsin backers - like billionaire Boris Berezovsky - have collided over questions of who gets to buy what. This adds to the infighting criticized by Yeltsin.

New faces in key ministries could lessen bickering in the Kremlin and thus move reforms along. On the other hand, reforms could be briefly sidetracked as the new team seeks a vote of approval from the largely anti-reform legislature, the Duma.

Along with new faces, Yeltsin's purpose is to usher out some old ones: Mr. Chubais, viewed by many average Russians as the architect of their economic woes; Anatoly Kulikov, the interior minister tainted by the war in Chechnya; and Mr. Chernomyrdin, who has held the prime minister post for five years and has been seen as a loyal, stabilizing figure.

But the prime minister has also been seen as Yeltsin's likely successor after the 2000 elections. Chernomyrdin is an old hand at Moscow's bureaucratic and political intrigues, with connections abroad as well as at home. He and US Vice President Al Gore have pursued a two-man East-West dialogue for years.

Chernomyrdin's stature, and ambitions, may have grown a little too large for Yeltsin's comfort. The ousted PM has now been put in charge of preparations for the elections two years hence. Is that a way of sidelining Chernomyrdin? Or does it help him, because he'll be distanced from the government and its often unpopular decisions?

Such questions will only be answered by Russia's continuing political evolution. That evolution has already come a long way. No one can say debate isn't open, and politics vigorous. And economic reform? Rocky, certainly, but on the move.

Seen in its best light, Yeltsin's latest thunderbolt may just be his way of making sure no one settles in too comfortably, or starts to slide backward.

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