Yeltsin Vows to 'Restore Order,' Pledges Government ShakeupBy David Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 7 1997; Page A01
President Boris Yeltsin formally returned to Russia's political arena today after an eight-month absence, vowing to "restore order" out of economic chaos and political corruption but blaming others for the country's deepening decay.
In a 24-minute address to parliament, Yeltsin, who underwent quintuple heart bypass surgery four months ago and later contracted pneumonia, looked thin but spoke with a firm voice. He repeatedly borrowed the law-and-order vocabulary of his chief political rival, retired general Alexander Lebed, promising to crack the whip on slothful bureaucrats and swindlers.
"It's high time to restore order, primarily in power," he said, striking a different tone from last year's address on the eve of his reelection campaign in which he celebrated Russia's evolution into a pluralistic democracy.
Yeltsin's speech was half as long as last year's, but his fluent delivery and steady diction may quell the recent criticism that he is too sick to lead. Yeltsin has been ill almost continuously since he was reelected last summer.
"The president today was just exactly how we loved him back in '87," said Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who serves in the upper chamber of parliament. "Now everybody can understand and believe that he has regained his health."
Yeltsin said he would make high-level government changes, and it h as been widely reported that on Friday he will name reformer Anatoly Chubais, his current chief of staff, as deputy prime minister. The appointment would put Chubais back in day-to-day management of the economy and government under Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Chubais held the same post before he was dismissed by Yeltsin in January 1996.
Chubais, 41, is deeply disliked as a symbol of the inequities of privatization in the early years of post-Soviet reforms, which enriched some and embittered millions. But he is also regarded by the liberal elite as one of Russia's few skilled, Western-oriented civil servants.
Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads the centrist Yabloko bloc in parliament and has been a critic of the government in recent years, said in a radio interview that several members of his party have been offered ministerial posts working for Chubais.
In his address, Yeltsin warned that the planned expansion of NATO "may become a fateful decision that will cost the peoples of Europe dearly." Reiterating Russia's opposition to the alliance's enlargement eastward, Yeltsin said it could "cause direct damage to our security." Behind the expansion plans "is the desire to oust Russia from Europe," Yeltsin said. "Let me remind you that attempts to create a system of European security without Russia, let alone contrary to Russia, have always ended in failure."
Yeltsin's address was aimed squarely at his political rivals. Although he will not face Russian voters again, popularity polls show Yeltsin's standing has plummeted in recent months and he now trails Lebed, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Luzhkov. The major reason is continuing economic distress and unpaid wages and pensions. At the outset of his address, Yeltsin said a national work stoppage being organized by the Communists for March 27 would be "quite legitimate."
"This is an alarm," he said. "This is a sign that people are running out of patience. Lack of will and indifference, irresponsibility and incompetence in dealing with state problems -- that's how people assess present authorities in Russia. I have to admit this is the correct assessment."
Yeltsin did not blame himself for Russia's lethargy, but scolded his government, led by Chernomyrdin. "The executive branch has turned out to be incapable of working without the president shouting at it," Yeltsin said, although he apparently has decided not to dismiss Chernomyrdin.
Yeltsin also assailed parliament for adopting laws without the means to pay for their implementation, and chided regional leaders for ignoring dictates from Moscow.
As he has many times before, Yeltsin promised action on the wage and pension arrears, saying the country is locked in a "vicious circle" of debt and nonpayment. He again blamed parliament for an "unrealistic budget" and said "modern Russian swindlers" are siphoning off money intended for wages.
Yeltsin promised to submit a tax reform plan to parliament, calling it the "key economic task" of the year. Tax avoidance and special privileges have punched a giant hole in the Russian budget. Yeltsin acknowledged that he is "extremely worried" by the deterioration of the Russian army and promised to make "fundamental decisions" soon on long-delayed military reforms. He has made similar vows in recent years without discernible progress.
Yeltsin's address, an annual report on the state of the union accompanied by a more detailed written document, was welcomed by centrists but criticized by Communists. Some members were openly skeptical and joking as Yeltsin spoke to the lawmakers in a Kremlin hall.
"Not one word of accounting for what's been done," Zyuganov complained, adding that Yeltsin had provided "loud words and no analysis about what and how and who will do this. I want to hear about why the economy doesn't work, why pensions aren't paid. Law and order in power begins with the president's team."