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  •   Primakov Seen Solidifying Control

    By David Hoffman
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Wednesday, January 27, 1999; Page A15

    MOSCOW, Jan. 26—Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov can chalk up one big accomplishment over the last four months: He calmed Moscow's political waters in the wake of the August devaluation crisis. The natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, is purring with praise, the opposition Communists are congenial, and the contentious lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has twice voted in support of his budget.

    So it came as a surprise this week when Primakov revived a proposal for a formal, written truce among Russian President Boris Yeltsin, parliament and the Primakov government. Such a deal seemed to have died last year, and Primakov hardly seems to need it.

    Behind the proposals, analysts said, is Primakov's attempt to consolidate his increasingly powerful position in advance of the coming parliamentary and presidential elections, this year and next, especially at a time when Yeltsin's health is uncertain and the economy remains fragile.

    Primakov sent a letter to parliamentary leaders Friday containing a slightly amended version of a power-sharing deal that fell apart last autumn. The letter suggested that Yeltsin would promise not to dissolve the Duma and not dismiss the Primakov government if parliament would suspend current impeachment proceedings against Yeltsin and promise to avoid a no-confidence vote in the Primakov government.

    At the same time, Primakov sent parliament a long-discussed draft bill giving former presidents of Russia -- Yeltsin is the only president Russia has had -- expanded immunity from prosecution and guaranteed pay and benefits upon leaving office, which has been a concern of Yeltsin's family.

    "The prime minister enjoys a sufficiently high degree of confidence. The document is meant to keep it that way," said Igor Bunin, a political consultant. He noted that Russia may face a new round of inflation in the spring and that Yeltsin's health remains in question.

    "The president is apparently going to check out of the hospital soon," Bunin said. "As usual, our president has a fork in the road ahead of him -- whether to work in tandem, or to stage an experiment like the one in March 1998 when he wrecked the structure of power." Yeltsin at the time fired his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and set off months of chaos in Russian politics and the economy.

    Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, a research center here, said Primakov's rising star could be worrying the bedridden Yeltsin.

    "Primakov got more and more influential, and now he is regarded as a presidential candidate," he said. "Now, he is regarded by some as more influential than Boris Yeltsin. It makes Yeltsin jealous. Primakov decided to do something to minimize it. He understands that when Yeltsin comes back from the hospital he may want to shake things up."

    Yeltsin, in a Kremlin statement, said today that he generally supports some kind of political truce but would not give up any of his constitutional powers, as Communists have demanded in the past. Reaction in parliament to Primakov's proposal was ambivalent.

    Elections for the Duma are scheduled for December and for president in the summer of 2000. Primakov's political freeze would leave him in a position to compete for the presidency -- although he denies any such plans. As prime minister he would become acting president for three months if Yeltsin were to die or step down.

    Primakov's initiative also seemed to be a counterpunch to a charge made last week by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is already campaigning hard to succeed Yeltsin, that the hospitalized president is unable to lead Russia.

    Primakov's proposal is not the only sign of his maneuvering. The calculating and cautious prime minister has been installing hand-picked allies from the Soviet and Russian intelligence services into key agencies. For example, Yuri Kobaladze, a former spokesman for the foreign intelligence service, has been named deputy director of Tass, the state news agency.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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