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  •   Citing Economy, Yeltsin Fires Premier

    Russian President Boris Yeltsin, right, shakes hands with Yevgeny Primakov during their meeting in Moscow on Wednesday. (AFP)
    By David Hoffman
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Thursday, May 13, 1999; Page A1

    MOSCOW, May 12 President Boris Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov today after eight months in the job, arousing new economic uncertainty here and setting in motion a collision with the Communist-dominated legislature on the eve of a debate on impeachment charges against Yeltsin.

    Yeltsin nominated Sergei Stepashin, the interior minister and a first deputy prime minister, to succeed Primakov, but the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, appears certain to reject Stepashin, thus touching off weeks and perhaps months of political wrangling and deadlock. Primakov was the third prime minister to be fired by Yeltsin in the past 14 months.

    Within hours of Primakov's dismissal, the Duma voted 243 to 20 in favor of a non-binding resolution calling on Yeltsin to resign, and Communist leaders called for mass rallies to protest Yeltsin's action.

    The crisis also could disrupt Russian diplomatic efforts to help broker a settlement of the Kosovo conflict. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott arrived here today to try to resolve disputes over the issue only to find the Russian government in shreds. Yeltsin warned that Russia would end its mediation effort if NATO does not heed its views on Kosovo.

    The political imbroglio also appears to endanger the latest International Monetary Fund loan package for Russia, which is considered critical to avoid a default this year on the country's $17 billion in foreign debt. The IMF loans were contingent on parliament's approval of a number of reform measures, which now appears unlikely because of the power struggle between the executive and legislative branches.

    A government default on foreign debt and the financial chaos this would cause could bar Russia and its cities and companies from world capital markets for many years to come. At the same time, protracted political squabbling could frighten off direct foreign investment, as it has in the past, depriving the country of financial support it desperately needs. The government already has defaulted on domestic bonds and some Soviet-era debts.

    Yeltsin's action was roundly criticized from all quarters. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who had strongly backed Primakov, said that Yeltsin's decision was "a political default, which will be followed by an economic" default. Vladimir Averchev, a member of the centrist Yabloko bloc in parliament, said: "This decision is extremely irresponsible not from the point of view of Yeltsin, but in terms of the welfare of the country."

    Yeltsin, 68, who has suffered a long series of health problems, announced Primakov's dismissal in a television appearance in which he appeared puffy and seemed to have difficulty pronouncing his words. Still, it was only the latest of many instances in which Yeltsin has seemed to function more like a monarch keeping members of his court constantly off guard than a modern-day, policy-oriented president.

    He said he was firing Primakov because "we are still marking time in the economy," and this drift was "beginning to cause damage." But political sources in close touch with Yeltsin said that another reason for the president's growing displeasure with Primakov was the premier's close ties to the Communist Party. Yeltsin has a visceral hatred for the Communists and believed that Primakov had become their tool, the sources said. Yeltsin's spokesman Dmitri Yakushkin said the decision to fire Primakov was "hatched over quite a long period of time."

    Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the Yabloko bloc, observed that Primakov "was sitting on two laps Yeltsin's and the Communists'. When they moved apart, he fell down." Primakov, a long-time Soviet-era academic and foreign policy expert, often seemed out of place in a Russia overtaken by by uncontrolled capitalism, which he acknowledged he detests.

    Yeltsin's move also may not sit well with Russian voters. Although Primakov's government had accomplished little of substance, his public approval ratings were high, and the result could well be that Communists and nationalists win even more seats in the next parliament. They already are riding high after nine months of economic upheaval and because of an eruption of anti-Western sentiment here following the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia. A fresh boost for them could doom any hope of further economic liberalization and long-term structural reform. The next elections are scheduled for December, but a deadlock over Stepashin's nomination could bring them about sooner.

    Acting Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin (AP)

    Primakov's firing has plunged Russia into a complex legal and constitutional quandary. If the Duma votes three times to reject the Stepashin nomination, Yeltsin has the constitutional authority to dissolve the body and call new parliamentary elections. However, it appears he can do this only if impeachment charges are not being pursued against him, and that very prospect looms in the days ahead. Beginning Thursday, the 450-member Duma is scheduled to spend three days debating five counts of impeachment against Yeltsin, charges advanced largely by the Communists.

    Under Russia's 1993 Constitution, Yeltsin can only be impeached on the basis of "charges of high treason or another grave crime." These charges must be voted by a two-thirds majority of the Duma, then upheld by the Supreme Court which examines whether a crime was involved and the Constitutional Court which considers the legality of the impeachment process. Within three months, the charges also must be approved by the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, which is composed of regional leaders.

    The two courts and the upper house are generally favorable toward Yeltsin, and many analysts here believe that the impeachment effort cannot succeed. The five charges to be debated accuse Yeltsin of illegally conspiring to destroy the Soviet Union in 1991; of overthrowing the constitutional order and violently dispersing the elected parliament in 1993; of launching a two-year civil war in the separatist region of Chechnya that cost tens of thousands of lives; of undermining Russia's national defense by ruining its armed forces; and of committing genocide against the Russian people by pushing market-oriented economic reforms that led to declining birthrates and a plunge in life expectancy.

    Most political observers here say that the charge with the best chance of getting the necessary 300 votes for endorsement is the one on Chechnya, which is backed by the Yabloko faction, among others.

    Should the Duma approve at least one charge, the Constitution asserts that the chamber cannot be dissolved until after the Federation Council, the upper chamber, votes on the charge. But this provision conflicts with the one that gives Yeltsin the power to dissolve the Duma if it rejects his choice for premier three times. The contradictory provisions have never been clarified in court, and in coming weeks it is possible that both situations may arise.

    In making the announcement this morning, Yeltsin lauded Primakov for bringing political stability to Russia in the aftermath of a ruble devaluation by the government last August that spread havoc through financial markets here and around the world.

    Primakov was appointed in September at a moment of perilous uncertainty for the economy, but Yeltsin expressed displeasure with the status quo approach taken by Primakov's government since then. "The government is trying to present that everything is okay," Yeltsin said. "But in reality, it's not so." He added that the "main conditions of economic recovery are not working."

    Primakov had been striving to win IMF approval of a loan package that would be sufficient to cover Russia's debts to the Fund this year, about $4.5 billion, and his chief deputy, Yuri Maslyukov, recently negotiated an agreement to this effect with the lending agency. But Yeltsin took a swipe at this aspect of Primakov's leadership today, saying his government's economic activity "boils down only to talks with the International Monetary Fund, as if the treatment of the Russian economy depends only on the allocation of Western credits."

    Following Yeltsin's announcement, prices on the small Russian stock market slumped 18 percent, and trading was stopped twice because of rampant selling. The ruble also fell against the dollar.

    Stepashin said he intends to continue with market reforms, but there was no indication of whom he might pick for critical cabinet positions in his new government. Maslyukov, a onetime head of Soviet central planning and member of the Communist faction in the Duma, said, "I only know that my services are no longer needed now."

    Stepashin, 47, has little experience on economic matters and has been part of the Soviet and Russian security apparatus for most of his public career. He was an ideologist in the Interior Ministry and defended a doctorate on the theme of "party leadership in fire-fighting brigades."

    Yeltsin fired Stepashin as interior minister in 1995 after a raid by Chechen rebel forces on a city in southern Russia left more than 100 people dead. But Stepashin soon got another job in Yeltsin's administration and later was named minister of justice and again minister of the interior, which is the country's top law enforcement position.

    The dismissal of Primakov may also bring new attention to Yeltsin's health problems. He has been seen in public more often than usual lately, but he sometimes appears disoriented and confused. Today, Yeltsin also named Nikolai Askyonenko, the little-known minister of railways, as first deputy prime minister under Stepashin.

    Correspondent Sharon LaFraniere contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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