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Last Key Reformer Leaves Yeltsin's Cabinet

Prague, Jan. 17 (RFE/RL) - Anatoly Chubais, architect of Russia's economic reforms, has become the latest victim of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's cabinet purge.

Chubais follows foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev and chief of staff Sergei Filatov out of the Kremlin. The three men, until a week ago, had formed a triumvirate of young 'Westernizers' who had shaped policy in the Yeltsin administration from the very start. They were the public face of Russian reform. And although their influence had recently waned, Yeltsin's house-cleaning is a signal that he has sensed the mood of the country. Barring further health troubles, Yeltsin is now almost sure to run for a second presidential term and the ditching of any liberal advisers is the first step in his campaign.

Presidential aide Aleksandr Livshits said Yeltsin blamed Chubais for the government's failure to pay wages and pensions on time. But Livshits said Chubais' departure does not mean that Russia is abandoning the tight monetary policies that have brought monthly inflation down from 18 percent a year ago to just over three percent in December 1995.

Nevertheless, Western observers are wary. Chubais devised and implemented Russia's privatization program - which began in 1992. Last month, he boasted that the largest sell-off of state property in history had led to "a privatized economy and financial stability which will bring real investment into the Russian economy." Chubais' efforts won him friends at the International Monetary Fund and brought Russia billions of dollars in credits from the West. Negotiations on a further 9 billion dollar loan from the IMF are continuing - but with Chubais' resignation, those talks could now be in jeopardy.

Privatization was the main target of nationalist and Communist opposition to Yeltsin during December's parliamentary elections. Those groups say Chubais' brainchild has been a corrupt giveaway designed to fill the pockets of well-placed banks and certain investors -- while the average Russian is left with high prices and few social guarantees.

Communist leader and presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov has said that Yeltsin's economic policies have led Russia to "overall poverty and shame."

Now that the man publicly identified with that policy is gone, Yeltsin may find it tempting to relax tight monetary policies in order to defuse the criticism. Those monetary policies have helped cut inflation and restored faith in the Russian economy abroad but also impoverished millions of Russians. Chubais, in tendering his resignation, warned that any change of economic course would be a "monstrous mistake."

Ultimately, if Yeltsin runs for a second term, he will have to choose whether to disavow market reforms or continue backing economic liberalization. He will likely try to do both while appearing to do neither. But that is unlikely to satisfy Russian voters. The Communists and nationalists have smelled blood and are redoubling their attacks against the Kremlin. If he wants to get re-elected, Yeltsin will have to do better than blame his underlings and reverse unpopular policies. Those moves will neither appease his critics nor win over Russia's voters.