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    Yeltsin's Latest Demonstration of Vitality

    Russian President Boris Yeltsin signs the decree removing his cabinet. (Reuters)
    By David Hoffman
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, March 24, 1998; Page A14

    MOSCOW, March 23—Sidelined by illness, Russian President Boris Yeltsin appeared to be barely holding on just a few days ago. Isolated at his country residence, he was so frail that doctors said a planned summit meeting this week with Western European leaders would have to be moved from Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains to Moscow, because Yeltsin could not endure the flight.

    Today, Yeltsin roused himself. With a suddenness and drama he has relished in the past, Yeltsin pulled the tablecloth out from under his own government, announcing the dismissal of his staid but loyal Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and every other cabinet official, including reformer Anatoly Chubais.

    Behind the surprising move is the complex calculus of the presidential elections two years away, according to officials inside the Russian government as well as political observers on the outside. A presidential campaign is already well underway, and it is driven by uncertainty about Yeltsin's health.

    "The 2000 elections are of immense importance to us," Yeltsin acknowledged in a televised speech today. "One can say that they mean the future destiny of Russia."

    In firing Chernomyrdin, officials and analysts said, Yeltsin had come to the conclusion that the former chief of the Gazprom natural gas monopoly could never be elected his successor. Chernomyrdin also may have become too ambitious in the latest jockeying for the job.

    Some of the wealthy Russian financial barons, especially the industrialist Boris Berezovsky, pushed for a housecleaning. Last week, Chernomyrdin approved terms for a $1.6 billion sale of the state-owned Rosneft oil company that analysts said were unfavorable to Berezovsky while opportune for his rivals, including a Gazprom-Lukoil-Shell consortium.

    In the past, Yeltsin has always governed by trying to balance competing power centers and cutting down those who might threaten him politically. Chernomyrdin, along with several other aspirants, already had a presidential campaign team at work, according to participants.

    Yeltsin said today he wanted Chernomyrdin to prepare for the campaign, but analysts said the president's action would have precisely the opposite effect, dashing any hope Chernomyrdin might have of inheriting Yeltsin's mantle. Chernomyrdin's public support is so low that he barely registers in national public opinion polls here.

    In fact, what Yeltsin did today was to leave a gaping, puzzling question mark. He gave no hint of his intentions except to say he wants to push ahead more aggressively with reform.

    According to Russian officials and politicians, Yeltsin has thrown open the doors to another bruising competition among Russia's financial clans for power and influence in its new government.

    "A typical Yeltsin move: unorthodox, radical and bold with no clear plan, and improvised," said analyst Andrei Kortunov. "When they don't know what to do, they do what they know. Yeltsin doesn't know what to do with the economy, with financial systems, with investment. He knows how to dismiss people and make heads roll.

    "Every power group will consider it to be a moment of opportunity," he added, "a vacuum they will try to fill."

    Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a specialist on Russian political and financial elites, said, "Yeltsin's entourage has been warned more than once that Chernomyrdin is growing stronger and something has to be done. It's jealousy of a competitor."

    Yeltsin's decision bore the fingerprints of Berezovsky, one of the most outspoken of the Russian business magnates and perhaps the best-connected to the Kremlin. Berezovsky, an auto, oil, airline and media baron, helped bankroll Yeltsin's successful 1996 reelection campaign.

    A soft-spoken man who prefers sharp black business suits, Berezovsky was previously deputy head of the Kremlin security council, and remains close to Yeltsin's daughter and political aide, Tatyana Dyachenko, as well as to Yeltsin's chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, for whom Berezovsky is an official, unpaid adviser. Injured recently in a snowmobiling accident and hospitalized in Geneva, Berezovsky rose from his sickbed and returned to Moscow for a lengthy and sympathetic television interview broadcast Sunday evening, just hours before Yeltsin's announcement.

    Berezovsky has waged a long campaign for his view that the Kremlin powers must heed the nation's young and feisty capitalists. Critics call them a financial oligarchy that has already carved up some of the most valuable factories, refineries and mines of the former Soviet Union for their own benefit. They strive to be kingmakers in Russian politics, many analysts say.

    In his televised remarks, Berezovsky said that his chief preoccupation is finding an acceptable successor to Yeltsin. "The 2000 elections have, in effect, already started and the election campaign is underway today," he said. Berezovsky added that just as the financiers rallied around Yeltsin in 1996 to defeat the Communist candidate, once again they needed to find a new president, one that would be "electable." He implied but did not say directly: acceptable to the oligarchs.

    Berezovsky said Yeltsin "will not be electable" and proceeded to rule out every other well-known contender. He said this vacuum was "the most serious and grave problem facing the authorities today," but predicted "immense opportunities to bring forward new people." Berezovsky did not name his choice, and analysts said the oligarchs are stumped, that they do not have a sure-fire successor to Yeltsin.

    But Yeltsin's announcement today fell short of a clear victory for any of the Russian financial powers, if only because he provided no clues about what is to follow. Yeltsin has two weeks to name a new prime minister, who will be Russia's third since the Soviet break-up in 1991. The fate of many ministers, including reformer Boris Nemtsov, who along with Chubais was a first deputy prime minister, was unclear.

    "Berezovsky is not the only one playing in the game," said a Western diplomat. "But it's hard to see the follow-on. It's a very short bench. No one has really thought it through."

    Berezovsky was advocating the appointment of the former parliament speaker, Ivan Rybkin, as prime minister, officials said. Some reformers were pushing the energy minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, 35, who was named a deputy prime minister and temporary replacement for Chernomyrdin. Still other speculation centered on economist Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko bloc in parliament, a centrist who has never served in the executive branch.

    Yeltsin's choice must be approved by the parliament, which is dominated by Communists and nationalists. If they refuse after three attempts, Yeltsin can dissolve parliament, pick his prime minister and call new legislative elections, a threshold which the lawmakers have carefully avoided.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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