Moscow, 23 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's President Boris Yeltsin, a politician known for his bold and unexpected actions, shocked politicians, observers and market traders today when he fired Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and the entire government.
However, a few hours after the announcement, most observers in Moscow said Yeltsin's decision, immediately following the President's return to the Kremlin after more than a week of political inactivity due to his last illness, was meant to send a signal that he is firmly in power. And that he does not allow others to make - or even be perceived to make - political decisions in his place.
Political analysts Sergei Markov and Andrei Piantkovsky told RFE/RL that the move "benefits Yeltsin in the first place, and also gives a partial boost to the positions of the reformers." At the same time, they say, Yeltsin's decision and the way it was announced "is a blow, and a warning to Chernomyrdin." According to the analysts, Yeltsin has been disturbed by the Kremlin infighting of the last two months concerning the naming of a successor for the year 2000.
Russian commentators, and politically connected businessmen controlling media assets, have hinted that powerful Russian financial and media circles seemed to be consolidating their support behind Chernomyrdin, who has served as Prime Minister for more than five years. Cheromyrdin was previously a top executive in Russia's natural gas giant Gazprom.
The government's perceived top economic reformers, Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, have been locked in a power struggle with some of Russia's main financial tycoons over control of the economy. Among the tycoons were those who had played a key role in backing Yeltsin's 1996 re-election, including Boris Berezovsky.
Berezovsky said in a long interview broadcasted by NTV television Sunday night that he doubts Yeltsin could be elected President for a third consecutive term in 2000. He said that "even though Yeltsin is now undoubtedly political figure number-one, I believe he will not be electable in 2000." He added that "new authorities should not cash in on the mistakes of their predecessors, but build on the positive achievements of today's regime."
Many observers have been surprised by the businessman's decision-making tone. Political analyst Markov said Yeltsin might have viewed Berezovsky's comments as a "provocation," a challenge to Yeltsin's authority.
According to Markov, Yeltsin's move shows that "the President wants to decide himself who will be the best candidate for the "party of power" in the next presidential election. For this reason, today he told Chernomyrdin "to focus on the political preparation for the next election." Markov added that Yeltsin's move means Chernomyrdin, who scores only two to three percent popularity ratings in opinion polls nationwide, "will now have to prove to the President that he can be a candidate for the 'party of power'."
Both analysts concluded that it will be extremely difficult for Chernomyrdin to boost his position among the electorate without the visibility and influence of his previous political office. He is now simply the leader of the "Our Home is Russia" movement. Chernomyrdin has so far denied that he will run in the next presidential election.
Yeltsin, appearing on NTV commercial television a few hours after the Kremlin announcement, said that he has "instructed Chernomyrdin to concentrate on political preparations for the presidential elections in the year 2000." He added that "for us, the 2000 elections are very important. One can say that this is the future destiny of Russia."
In remarks that some commentators in Moscow have interpreted as Yeltsin's farewell to Chernomyrdin, the President praised Chernomyrdin as "thorough, reliable, and trustworthy," and said that "we have worked together for more than five years. He has done a lot for the country." But Yeltsin added, "Russia now needs a new team that can get real results."
Yeltsin said the Chernomyrdin-led Cabinet had done well in some areas, but, "it is lagging behind in the social sphere." He said that a new team will have to work hard to persuade citizens that market reforms would improve their lives, and will also have to concentrate more on economics and less on political infighting.
Over the weekend, Yeltsin criticized the government's chronic inability to pay wages and pensions on time. Today, Yeltsin said that the outgoing cabinet lacked dynamism, initiative and "fresh approaches," and complained that many Russians "do not feel changes for the better."
Following his meeting with Chernomyrdin this morning, Yeltsin signed separate decrees firing not only the Prime Minister but also First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais and Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov.
Political analyst Markov said Chubais, who has recently been appointed as a new board chairman of Russia's Soviet-era electricity monopoly, is likely to continue acting with other reformers in his new capacity.
Kulikov's future is viewed as more unpredictable.
Chubais told Interfax news agency that he has talked with Yeltsin and will remain a member of his "team" - however, he did not say in what capacity. Chubais said he knew in advance of Yeltsin's decision to dismiss the government, which, he said, had been under consideration for a long time.
In his television address, Yeltsin stressed repeatedly that the dismissal of the government does not mean a change of the course of reform.
Outgoing Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who today continued to work on the preparation of the three-way Russia-Germany-France summit in Moscow this week, said that the country's foreign policy would not be affected by the shake-up.
A visibly shaken Chernomyrdin, speaking in a separate television broadcast after Yeltsin's, said the dismissal of his government is not a "a catastrophe," and does not give "grounds for panic."
State Duma Deputy Chairman Vladimir Ryzhkov, who is also a member of Chernomyrdin's "Our Home is Russia" party, told Interfax that Chernomyrdin's dismissal "was not a complete surprise." However, Ryzhkov said Chernomyrdin found out only this morning.
In a sign that he remains committed to reform, Yeltsin today appointed 35-year-old Sergei Kirienko as a First Deputy Prime Minister, who will also fill the role of chief of the government. Kirienko, who served as Fuel and Energy Minister, is seen as an ally of Nemtsov.
Kremlin sources tell RFE/RL that Kirienko's name as a temporary replacement for Chernomyrdin was suggested by Nemtsov. Kirienko has already met Yeltsin to discuss the formation of the new government. Nemtsov was also to meet Yeltsin. Nemtsov has declined to comment on the shake-up, but analysts believe that his positions in the future government may be strengthened.
Some analysts believe Kirienko's appointment may be only temporary.
Under Russia's Constitution, Yeltsin has two weeks in which to name a new Prime Minister. The appointment must be approved by the State Duma, and most observers agree that the approval of Kirienko by the lower house of parliament, dominated by Communistsand nationalists, could be a "problematic" affair.
The names of other possible candidates are widely circulating in Moscow's political circles. Among them are the Chairman of the Federation Council (upper house of parliament) Yegor Stroev, Saratov's Governor Dmitry Ayazkov, and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. However, observers say the liberal leader of the pro-reform "Yabloko" movement and Duma faction, economist Grigory Yavlinsky, has a good chance of being offered the Prime Minister's post. Yavlinsky, one of the main critics of the previous government's economic policy, was not in Moscow today and has yet to comment on the shake-up.