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Russia: Primakov Seeks Stability

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 5 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov chaired today a meeting of the advisory Security Council on ways to ensure stability in the country ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.

Earlier in the day, the Lower House of parliament gave a fresh show of support for Primakov's consensus cabinet and approved the 1999 budget in its fourth and last reading.

The final vote was 308 in favor and 58 against, with 6 abstentions. Thanking deputies, Primakov said that "this historic act of accepting the budget not only shows political support for the government but opens up new scope for our activities."

Unlike in recent years, when lawmakers squabbled for months over the budget, the Communist-dominated Duma this time passed the budget with little debate. However, most economists and the International Monetary Fund have called the document and its provisions unrealistic.

Legislators also voted in favor of a separate government-proposed compromise over spending cuts for the Kremlin and parliament. The compromise calls for a 20 percent cut in the expenses of the Kremlin administration. The Duma had previously demanded a 40 percent cut, but the Kremlin had made clear Yeltsin could veto the budget, if legislators would insist.

Ahead of the Duma vote and Security Council meeting there had been growing speculation in Moscow of a possible government reshuffle and of existing -- or imagined -- squabbles between Yeltsin and Primakov. Until the last moment it had appeared unclear whether Yeltsin, who had asked Primakov to chair the Security Council meeting, would change his decision at the last minute.

Twice this week, the still convalescing president had made surprise appearances in the Kremlin, the last of which, yesterday, took place only hours after Yeltsin met with Primakov and Kremlin administration head Nikolai Bordyuzha. On Tuesday, the day of his first visit, Yeltsin accepted the resignation of Prosecutor-General Yuri Skuratov.

According to the official version, Skuratov's resignation was for reasons of ill health. However, most politicians and observers doubted it to be the real cause and were left wondering whether it was due to either a lack of activity or, to the contrary, too much activity by security organs in the past week.

This week, Primakov appeared to be the driving force of a crackdown on economic crime and corruption that seemed to be targeted mainly against Boris Berezovsky, a politically connected businessman who is also CIS Executive Secretary.

The daily "Kommersant" published today a front-page article hinting that Communist First Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov, Deputy Prime Minister Gennady Kulik (Agrarian Party) and Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov could soon lose their jobs.

Worried deputies said that a vote on the budget could be suspended if the rumors would prove correct. But Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev, Kremlin officials and Primakov himself made clear their effort to preserve political stability and present a united front, in order to ensure the budget's approval.

Seleznev and Yeltsin's parliamentary representative, Aleksandr Kotenkov, dismissed speculation that Yeltsin planned to reshuffle Primakov's consensus cabinet

After a telephone conversation with Kremlin administration head Nikolay Bordyuzha, Kotenkov said that "no decisions and no decrees are being prepared on removing any deputy prime ministers."

Seleznvyov later told the chamber he also had a denial from Yeltsin himself and Primakov arrival at the Duma managed to reassure deputies.

Some Russian media speculated that Berezovsky spread the rumor about a cabinet reshuffle.

The quintessential Russian "oligarch," Berezovsky has carefully cultivated the reputation of gray eminence of Russia's politics and reportedly played a role in the ouster of Russia's two previous prime ministers last year.

The Russian media this week widely speculated that diplomat/spymaster Primakov and former all-powerful Berezovsky are waging an intense turf battle that led to elite commandos searching the offices of companies allegedly controlled by the tycoon.

Raids this week at companies that Berezovsky reportedly controls, from oil company Sibneft to air carrier Aeroflot, have been seen as a powerful blow in terms of financial power and personal prestige for the tycoon.

In particular, Russian prosecutors have said that the raids at Sibneft and at security company Atoll has uncovered evidence that phone conversations of members of Yeltsin's family had been tapped.

Reformers in previous governments had repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, tried to limit Berezovsky's influence and Kremlin ties in the past. He seems to have been particularly damaged by these latest discoveries allegedly linked to him. The details seemed to turn Yeltsin's family against Berezovsky and give free hand to security organs under Primakov's control.