Yeltsin Abruptly Exits Meeting, Fails to Fire Aides as Expected
By David Hoffman
Aides said later that his departure was caused by a "tight schedule." But after months of speculation that Yeltsin would use the large assembly, originally planned for December, to make a dramatic gesture to rescue his government from drift, the session was marked instead by puzzling inaction.
"No self-congratulations," a stern Yeltsin implored as he opened the session at the Russian White House, which serves as headquarters for Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's government apparatus and for various senior officials.
Government ministers should be "very self-critical, firm, with proposals," Yeltsin declared, speaking extemporaneously and threatening that "by the end of the meeting we will be three government members short."
A ripple of nervous laughter went through the assembled bureaucrats and politicians who filled a large auditorium.
Yeltsin listened as Chernomyrdin delivered an hour-long address, then left the hall briskly during a break about 90 minutes into the session.
Why Yeltsin failed to follow through on his firing threat was not clear, but there were hints that Chernomyrdin may have forestalled any decision.
"I oppose endless bureaucratic reshuffling and hectic reorganization," Chernomyrdin told a news conference. "I favor a natural course of events."
Later, when reporters pressed Chernomyrdin about Yeltsin's inaction, he replied, "It is not the president's intention to sack anyone." Other reports suggested that Yeltsin may wait until next week to follow through on his threats.
Yeltsin already had said he would not fire Chernomyrdin's two first deputy prime ministers, Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, the chief economic reform figures in his government.
Most of the speculation centered on the possible ouster of several lower-level officials responsible for sagging tax collection; for foreign trade matters; and for liaison with the Commonwealth of Independent States, a crumbling alliance of former Soviet republics.
Yeltsin, 67, had been talking about delivering a stern tongue-lashing to the government before he fell ill Dec. 10, and today's meeting once again raised questions about his health. In the past, he has often disappeared or postponed scheduled events when ill. But later today, Yeltsin met with the president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, who is making his first state visit to Moscow.
Yeltsin has raised eyebrows here recently with a series of unpredictable and sharp verbal pronouncements that were hastily modified by aides, including warnings that a U.S. attack on Iraq would bring on "world war." Some Russian politicians have been speculating that Yeltsin's health continues to be poor, but the Kremlin has acknowledged no recent infirmities.
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