Yeltsin's Reshuffle: Game of Solitaire?

Vote is expected Friday on his choice of a new premier: a youthful technocrat.

There is a phrase that is very much in vogue in Moscow political circles these days: kak bui. It means "sort of" or "it appears." And it sums up more than anything the uncertainty of what exactly is going on.

Since President Boris Yeltsin shocked the nation March 23 by firing his entire government, including longtime Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, those who follow the Kremlin utter tentatively "maybe," "perhaps," and of course, "kak bui."

Mr. Yeltsin - autocratic, unpredictable, and beset by health problems - has forced through laws to give himself a firm grip on power with few checks and balances since becoming president in 1991. Only he knows how things will unfold - and everyone else appears powerless to do anything but speculate.

"The total responsibility of what develops belongs to the president," says Maria Aescmont, a columnist with the liberal Isvestia newspaper, who is trying to make sense of things along with everyone else.

One man who especially says "kak bui" is Sergei Kiriyenko, a modest, bespectacled man in his mid-30s who squinted into the cameras when Yeltsin unexpectedly plucked him from obscurity last week for nomination as the next prime minister.

Quintessential Yeltsin

Pundits interpreted the choice as a quintessential Yeltsin move: to appoint an unseasoned man lacking a strong power base who would present no threat in case the president sought a third term in 2000.

Yeltsin, who has referred to himself as "Czar Boris," has a history of getting rid of anyone who lasts long enough in his government to gain much influence. Mr. Chernomyrdin, who survived for five years, apparently had overstayed his welcome.

Yeltsin is unlikely to feel overshadowed by Mr. Kiriyenko, who humbly laces his speech with the words "as the president says," and admits to having been surprised more than anyone else at his appointment.

He is inexperienced, having served as fuel and energy minister for only a few months. And this young technocrat is unprepossessing and thus implicitly easier to boss around than Chernomyrdin, who has strong provincial and business support.

Born in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia to a Russian mother and a Jewish father, Kiriyenko was active in the Communist youth organization and reportedly never handed in his party card even after the Soviet Union collapsed. He was trained as an engineer and helped found a small commercial bank in 1993.

His political career began in Russia's Nizhny Novgorod region, where then-governor Boris Nemtsov named him head of a local oil company. Mr. Nemtsov, who was named deputy prime minister last year, brought Kiriyenko into the federal government as his protg.

The dynamic Nemtsov is one of the major figures in the government's reforms of the state sector, including privatizations, and is expected to retain his post in the current shakeup.

Kiriyenko's ties to Nemtsov mean that he will likely embrace the effort, despite its increasing unpopularity among ordinary Russians. Many are suffering from the country's high unemployment rate and $1.2 billion in unpaid public-sector wages. However, Kiriyenko may lack the vision and political savvy needed to address the myriad economic woes and enhance the government's popularity ahead of the 2000 elections.

Confirmation likely

His inexperience prompted the Communist Party, which holds the majority in the Duma, or lower house of parliament, to threaten to block his confirmation to the country's second most important political post.

Yeltsin has threatened to use his power to dissolve parliament if his choice is rejected three times in a row, but many analysts expect it will not come to that. They believe Kiriyenko will probably lose the first vote, expected as early as Friday. But then he could make it through the second or third round, partly with the help of other opposition parties who could break ranks with the Communists in return for a deal with Yeltsin.

"The Communists' great fear is to leave Yeltsin face-to-face with the country which would be ruled according to his whim rather than the laws," says Igor Bunin, director of the Center of Political Technologies, a Moscow-based independent research center.

Yeltsin seems to have had less success controlling Chernomyrdin, who unexpectedly announced on Saturday that he would run for president.

"Chernomyrdin had to move quickly to consolidate his support," says Sergei Kolmakov, deputy director general of the Moscow-based POLITY research foundation, who has had links with the Yeltsin camp.

"Otherwise the whole base of his financial support and influence in the regions would melt into pieces. He had to show that he was still on the political scene, was resolute, and even prepared to challenge the president," says Dr. Kolmakov.

The dry Chernomyrdin is not a popular grass-roots contender - recent public opinion polls have shown him with about 5 percent support. But he has strong regional and big-business friends useful in arranging a campaign.

Yeltsin reacted ambivalently, telling the Interfax news service yesterday that Chernomyrdin's announcement "does not stand apart from the general context of our policies," although he has said it was done "a little bit improperly."

The president added to the ambiguity with his response to an Interfax query as to whether Chernomyrdin could be viewed as his successor, saying, "It's not right for us to think about successors. Kings have successors. In this country, the choice is made by the people."

Interjecting a note of levity amid talk of a political crisis, the Comsomolskaya Pravda newspaper on Monday invited its readers to take part in a competition it entitled "the presidential 21."

The newspaper published a deck of playing cards with the faces of possible candidates. Kiriyenko and Nemtsov were mere 10s. Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin were presented as kings.

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