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Russia: Yeltsin Criticizes Government Over Wage Debt

Moscow, 19 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin, back at work in the Kremlin after a two-week holiday, today blamed his government for failing to meet its promise to pay back huge wage arrears to state employees. Yeltsin told Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and the two first deputy prime ministers, Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, that last year was a "failure" as far as government obligations were concerned. In comments broadcast on television, Yeltsin said a lot of work had piled up and that plenty of questions and problems had been created. But Chernomyrdin defended the government's performance, saying all payments had been made by the January one deadline. He said the government had actually paid out $500 million more than it owed.

The cabinet is due next month to give a full account of its work to Yeltsin, who has threatened personnel changes if he is not satisfied.

Yeltsin, in a separate meeting with Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, backed maintaining a tough line against breakaway Chechnya. But Ria news agency quotes him as telling Kulikov that a recent statement to such effect could have been better presented and he warned Kulikov to seek his advice in the future on such matters.

Kulikov's statement earlier this month prompted angry reaction from both the Chechen leadership and from Russian liberals, worried that it could provoke a resumption of the unpopular war, which ended in a truce in August, 1996.

Yeltsin looked comfortable and relaxed today at a short Kremlin ceremony to receive the credentials of new ambassadors to Russia.

On his first day back at work after a two-week vacation, Yeltsin smiled broadly, walked steadily and spoke clearly and firmly in a five-minute speech in the ornate Vladimir Room.

It was his first public appearance since December 25, although he had been filmed skiing and driving a snowmobile last week in a bid to dispel speculation about the state of his health.

After a ceremony lasting 15 minutes, during which he received documents and posed for photographs with each of the nine new ambassadors, the 66-year-old president mingled with the diplomats, smiling, chatting and toasting them with champagne.