'Comeback' Yeltsin's next move

Russian leader survived an impeachment vote Saturday. The next battle:

His popularity ratings are near zero. He cancels foreign trips and aides often have to "explain" his incoherent ramblings during public addresses. His repeated firing of governments has helped undermine the stability of the world's biggest country.

But like a rubbery cartoon character, Rus-sian President Boris Yeltsin has a remarkable ability to bounce back from attacks and remain in charge.

The man who has presided over post-Soviet Russia won another round in his eight-year battle against the Communist opposition on Saturday, when lawmakers failed to win support in parliament for an impeachment proceeding.

It is now expected that Mr. Yeltsin will force through his next candidate for prime minister, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin.

Despite immense unpopularity, the president has cultivated near-authoritarian powers that have cowed his enemies. And the possibility that he could dissolve the lower house of parliament, or Duma, if Mr. Stepashin is rejected means Yeltsin is likely to get his way again and on other matters until his term runs out in June 2000.

"The main fight now is over Stepashin's nomination. But the Duma knows that if [Yeltsin] doesn't have his way, he will dissolve it," says Igor Bunin, director of the Political Technologies Center, a Moscow-based think tank.

The first vote is set for Wednesday. Under the Constitution, if his nominee is rejected three times, Yeltsin has the right to dismiss the Duma and hold parliamentary elections three months later. Currently the vote is due in December.

NATO leaders have been sanguine about Russia's political turmoil, and say the domestic infighting should have little impact on Moscow's self-assumed role as mediator between the West and Yugoslavia in the Balkans crisis.

Yeltsin's staying power

Nothing so far has been able to topple Yeltsin, whose erratic decisions are widely seen as contributing to Russia's insecurity.

He has clung to power despite repeated bouts of illness since 1996 and launching the disastrous 1994-96 war in separatist Chechnya. He survived a violent 1993 parliamentary revolt, and a financial crash last August that plunged Russia into economic depression.

All these events were the bases of the five impeachment charges against him, as well as the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union. But lawmakers backed away from direct confrontation in Saturday's vote - and may give way on Stepashin as well.

Only 348 of the Duma's 440 deputies were even present for the impeachment vote, the culmination of a year-long effort to remove the president. The one motion that seemed likely to succeed - starting the Chechen war - fell 17 votes short of the 300 needed.

Lawmakers may well have been deterred by the improbability of ultimate success. If approved, the measure would still have had to pass muster in the Supreme and Constitutional Courts and then in the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, which analysts considered unlikely.

However, if the Duma had begun the process, it would have been immune from dissolution - an unsavory prospect for power-hungry Yeltsin.

This also could have created a potential constitutional deadlock, if Stepashin's third rejection gave Yeltsin the right to dismiss the Duma.

Wanting to assert control, Yeltsin initiated a showdown last week by firing Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov on the eve of the three-day impeachment debate. This was the third premier Yeltsin had sacked in just over a year. The move was mainly attributed to selfish motives rather than concern for the country's welfare, as Russia tries to reestablish international confidence.

Yeltsin was allegedly jealous of Mr. Primakov's success in restoring a semblance of stability when he took office in September amid the economic crisis. The premier was popular with the Communists and seemed capable of persuading the Duma to adopt unpopular laws necessary to win a $4.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Many analysts now believe Duma deputies will accept Stepashin, fearing Yeltsin could come up with a less palatable choice or simply dismiss them. The next few days are expected to involve intense lobbying with politicians.

Before the impeachment humiliation, it appeared a growing number of lawmakers were prepared to accept Stepashin as a tradeoff for winning the vote. It was not immediately clear afterward whether they would reject him in anger.

Even if Stepashin has an easy ride, he will inherit a raft of economic problems. A former interior minister, finance is not his field.

He is expected to appoint a reform-minded Cabinet that would try to push through legislation required to win IMF support.

IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus expressed the hope that the laws would go through and that, finally, Russia would calm down and get to business. "We are looking forward to the speedy resolution of the present political difficulties on the agenda to put the country on the right track," he said over the weekend.

Elections deferred?

But conspiracy theories have been swirling that the erratic president may dissolve parliament anyway, rule by decree, and even try to postpone parliamentary and presidential elections.

Several Kremlin watchers believe Yeltsin does not want to dismiss the Duma. But only Yeltsin knows what he will do.

"Yeltsin will only dissolve the Duma if Stepashin is not approved. He badly needs a scapegoat," says Frants Sheregi, of the Russian Institute of Social and National Problems, a Moscow-based independent research center. "The question is what are his intentions regarding next year's presidential elections? Possibly he intends to postpone that one."

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