Yeltsin Returns to Work, Rebukes Prime Minister
By Daniel Williams
But Yeltsin kicked off his first day back at work by scolding Chernomyrdin and his reformist rivals, first deputy prime ministers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, for failing to pay back wages to thousands of government employees by a Jan. 1 deadline.
"Last year was a failure as far as our obligations were concerned," he said during a televised meeting.
Yeltsin's return eased -- for the moment -- uncertainty about his health. He fell ill in December, dropped from sight, canceled meetings and only returned to public view in brief, staged video appearances. All the while his aides insisted nothing was seriously wrong.
These claims have prompted wide skepticism, and newspapers are speculating about the start of a post-Yeltsin era and reporting the jockeying for position in advance of presidential elections scheduled for 2000. Yeltsin has made comebacks before -- in the first half of 1997, he returned robustly after recovering from major heart surgery. Yet political betting seems to be against another rebound. In Russia, where there are few alternatives to presidential power, a vacuum at the top is unlikely to remain unfilled for long.
"The general feeling is that Yeltsin is in decline, so the maneuvering to pick up authority is intense," said Eugenia Albats, a journalist and political observer.
So far, Chernomyrdin appears to be leading the sweepstakes. In a redistribution of cabinet powers that he announced last week, Chernomyrdin was the main beneficiary.
He declared himself the final word on major economic matters, including energy, monetary and credit policy and banking. He also granted himself powers to oversee Russia's so-called "power" ministries: the army, police and intelligence.
Chernomyrdin's gains prompted newspaper commentators to describe him as a regent for an ailing Yeltsin. "The strengthening of prime minister Chernomyrdin is no doubt unprecedented. The head of government is turning into a figure that is almost as great as the president . . . and with the president's consent," wrote Izvestia.
"With his new powers, Chernomyrdin now looks more like a vice president," said Nezavismaya Gazeta.
Many Russian commentators consider Chernomyrdin a possible successor to Yeltsin. By law, should Yeltsin become incapacitated, Chernomyrdin would head a caretaker government for three months before new elections.
Nezavismaya Gazeta went so far as to say that with Chernomyrdin's powers, "the problem of an official successor to Boris Yeltsin may be considered settled."
In the cabinet, Chernomyrdin was rivaled by the younger Chubais-Nemtsov team. Chernomyrdin favors the unfettered business practices of the country's large monopolies, especially the oil and gas giant Gazprom that he once headed. Chubais and Nemtsov had campaigned for a breakup of monopolies and for putting legal reins on big business.
Until last week's shake-up, Yeltsin's governing strategy had been to keep the rivals in rough balance. Now the balance is in Chernomyrdin's favor, Russian observers say.
Chubais is nominally in charge of economic strategy, but his main chore is the thankless task of tax collection. He lost his post as finance minister last fall after being tainted by a scandal over a book advance. Loss of the finance ministry means reduced influence for Chubais in the dispersal of Russia's scarce cash resources. Until late last year, Chubais was regarded as No. 2 to Yeltsin and the helmsman of reform.
Although he was not involved in scandal, Nemtsov lost his energy ministry portfolio last year because of his association with Chubais. Last week he sank further. He has been given the chore of reforming Russia's housing system -- a change that inevitably would raise payments on rent, maintenance and utilities. The move, if implemented, would be highly unpopular.
"Chubais has been cut down to size. As for Nemtsov . . . he has been left with many of the least attractive duties," said Andrei Kortunov, a political analyst.
In reply to Yeltsin's rebuke today, Chernomyrdin argued that the back wages had indeed been paid on time, despite reports to the contrary. "We gave everything to everybody . . . We accomplished what was mentioned in our obligations," he said.
"That is not so," Yeltsin responded.
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