Premier Designate Rejected in Russia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 1, 1998; Page A01
MOSCOW, Aug. 31President Boris Yeltsin's attempt to reappoint Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister was overwhelmingly rejected by parliament today, deepening Russia's political disarray on the eve of President Clinton's visit.
Yeltsin immediately resubmitted the nomination as Russian officials voiced fears that a prolonged power struggle could aggravate the country's spreading financial crisis. The vote by the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, left the nation without a formal government in place as Clinton flew here for a two-day summit that is likely to be dominated by Russia's financial upheaval.
Before leaving Washington for Moscow today, Clinton said that the United States and other Western powers will continue to support Russia as long as its leaders "stay on the path of reform." The Kremlin is hoping its political and financial crises will not affect the $22.6 billion economic rescue package it negotiated last month with the International Monetary Fund. The next $4.3 billion installment is due this month.
The vote against confirmation in the 450-member Duma -- 251 to 94, with 105 members not voting -- followed Chernomyrdin's acknowledgment to the house that during the five years he served previously as premier he saw "mistakes made . . . miscalculations." But now, he said, the country "is on the brink, economically and politically."
The chamber was unmoved. Chernomyrdin -- who was fired as premier by Yeltsin in March, then renominated last week after a devaluation of the ruble threatened to fracture the banking system -- took a verbal lashing from all sides in the Duma debate. Factions as disparate as the Communist Party -- which holds the largest bloc of seats in the Duma -- the centrist Yabloko movement and the ultranationalist forces of Vladimir Zhirinovsky disparaged Chernomyrdin as a principal contributor to Russia's economic malaise and the recent financial meltdown.
"What they have been creating for the last seven years under the guise of democratic reforms is totally in ruins at present," Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov declared. "You would not be able to handle it," he told Chernomyrdin, "and a massive collapse will begin -- after everything that has already happened."
Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky said that Chernomyrdin "simply does not understand what happened when he was in power."
Chernomyrdin, who is serving at present as acting premier, said after the vote that he intends to begin selecting new government ministers anyway. Under the 1993 Russian constitution, Yeltsin can submit a nominee for the premiership three times; if three successive Duma ballots are negative, he can dissolve the house and order new legislative elections. A letter renominating Chernomyrdin was sent to the Duma tonight, and it has a week to take a second vote.
This spring, Yeltsin fought for a month before winning third-ballot confirmation of another premier-designate, Sergei Kiriyenko -- a reform-minded banker whom he dismissed Aug. 23 after his government undertook the tumultuous ruble devaluation. The current Duma's term runs to the end of next year, and many members have said they want to avoid dissolution and an early election; thus, analysts said, there appears to be room for bargaining between president and parliament.
On Sunday, it seemed that Yeltsin aides and Duma leaders had worked out an agreement that would have guaranteed Chernomyrdin's confirmation today. The deal would have given parliament more say in government appointments; initiated a long-term process to revise the 1993 constitution; and forbidden presidential dissolution of parliament and Duma votes of no-confidence.
Chernomyrdin and leaders of his political party, Our Home Is Russia, had put the proposal together in hopes it would satisfy the Communists, who have long bridled at Yeltsin's broad powers under the 1993 constitution. But Zyuganov announced Sunday night that he and other party leaders had decided not to sign the deal; he complained that the agreement was non-binding and could easily be ignored once Chernomyrdin was in office.
Today's vote unsettled many Russian politicians who said they fear it will exacerbate the country's financial crisis. Already the Moscow stock market is paralyzed and has dragged other world markets to yearly lows; the banking system is imperiled; and the main currency exchange has closed.
"The fire is raging now," complained an angry Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, who earlier had endorsed Chernomyrdin. "How can they not understand this?" he asked, referring to the Duma. "I am terribly upset that for two weeks they can't make one concrete decision," Luzhkov told reporters. "As two rats might say, why do we need cheese? Right now, we need to get out of this mousetrap. It's not time for cheese."
Oleg Morozov, leader of the Russian Regions faction in the Duma, said, "If a government . . . doesn't appear this week, we'll be leaving the country to die in front of our eyes."
"A lot of people in the Duma don't understand the seriousness of the situation," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a leader of Chernomyrdin's party and a deputy Duma speaker.
Anatoly Chubais, a reformist who helped negotiate the IMF bailout, also warned that the country is facing a long financial crisis. "We have to admit that we are facing a major retreat with heavy losses," he said, "a retreat during which we shall have to cede a whole series of the most important positions that we won."
Meanwhile, the Moscow stock exchange remained moribund as traders waiting to see how the power struggle would end. The Interbank Currency Exchange remained closed, but Russia's Central Bank said that a modified electronic system for trading hard currencies would open later this week. The exchange was closed last week after the ruble plunged sharply against the dollar and the Central Bank decided it could no longer afford to intervene.
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