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Western Press Review: Yeltsin Is Mr. Enigma

By Don Hill/Esther Pan/Dora Slaba

Prague, 24 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Western commentators, contemplating Russian President Boris Yeltsin's mass dismissal of the government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, come up today with new names for the mercurial Yeltsin -- all different. Showman, Boris the Terrible, cynic, tsar, and coup master constitute a sampling.

LES DERNIERES NOUVELLES DALSACE: Yeltsins actions founded in intrigues of Kremlin

From Strasbourg, France, Jean-Claude Kiefer comments in Les Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace: "It is without precedent in the annals of international politics: the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, returning from convalescence, yesterday gathered his entire government and sent them out like an unwelcome domestic." Kiefer writes: "In fact, we are witnessing an occurrence without a doubt unusual in Western democracies: the chief executive relieves himself of an entire branch of his government in order to strengthen his political base two years before the expiration of his mandate. All of it is founded in the intrigues and palace revolutions that abound in the history of the Kremlin."

LONDON TIMES: Good theater, bad politics

The Times of London describes the action as a "Yeltsin coup," labeling it "good theater but bad politics." In an editorial, the newspaper says: "Boris Yeltsin was once a keen basketball player, and still enjoys wrongfooting his opponents." It says: "But his coup de thtre may prove less dramatic than it first appeared, and could prove costly in the long run not only to the Russian economy but also to Mr. Yeltsin's own dwindling authority."


"Russia's president, Boris Yeltsin, is turning the abrupt dismissal of top government officials into his trademark governing style," says The New York Times in an editorial. The newspaper says it's a trademark, however, that identifies uncertain goods: "Yeltsin's achievements over the years have been impressive. But his increasingly mercurial leadership, marked by erratic pronouncements, frequent health crises and sudden removal of top aides, now threatens to undermine Russia's political stability and the confidence of foreign governments and investors."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: Yeltsin unpredictable but never dull

He may be unpredictable, but he's never dull, Alan Philps writes in the London Daily Telegraph. Philps says: "Yeltsin's life has been punctuated by surprises ever since his childhood, when he picked up a German hand-grenade and blew off two fingers of his right hand." Yeltsin's high-mileage life has begun to take a toll, Philps writes, "But he is not yet too old to stay one step ahead of the pack. Nor could he ever be accused of being dull."

An editorial in the same newspaper, entitled Boris the Terrible, marvels at Yeltsin's bounceback elasticity. It says: "One has to take one's hat off to Boris Yeltsin. Brought down once again by a respiratory infection, he retires from public view. (Then) back comes the Russian president and catches everyone off guard by sacking his entire cabinet for not doing enough to improve people's lives." The editorial says: "Mr. Yeltsin's powers of recovery are becoming the stuff of legend."

DIE WELT: Observers bowled over

"Whenever we think Boris Yeltsin has staged his last stunt, he pops up again with another," writes columnist Manfred Quiring in Die Welt. "(Yesterday's) dismissal of the entire Russian government certainly bowled over observers completely."

Quiring's commentary is one of many that concentrate on the likely outcome for Chernomyrdin. The columnist writes: "Crown princes have only a short life to look forward to at the side of a Yeltsin still greedy for power. Especially as the constitutional court will not declare until the autumn whether Yeltsin himself may stand for election in 2000 again or not."

Another Die Welt columnist, Jens Hartmann, says: "For more than five years he was seen as the great Russian survival act. As prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin survived crises, conflicts and plots which cost others their heads." The columnist comments: "But this scion of a Cossack family is no regicide but a loyal man. His unshakeable loyalty during more than five years as prime minister -- mostly in Yeltsin's shadow -- seems to have paid off. The president's will is that he should take over the scepter and move into the Kremlin as president in 2000."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Chernomyrdin most intriguing casualty

The Wall Street Journal Europe (F526) says, editorially: "The most intriguing casualty of the shake-up was Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The president's most loyal deputy was a man who has survived numerous cabinet resuffles." Says the WSJ: "It is just possible that Mr. Yeltsin has some bigger plan for Viktor Stepanovich."


Robert Bonte-Friedheim in the Wall Street Journal Europe: "It's back to reading tea leaves in the Russian samovar."

GUARDIAN: Sweeping act with small bearing on Russias future

The London Guardian says in an editorial: "Boris Yeltsin's dismissal yesterday of his entire government is a sweeping act with only a small bearing on Russia's future." The editorial says: "The question everyone was asking yesterday was whether Mr. Yeltsin's action would be good or bad for reform." It said: "But in a situation where it is unclear whether ex-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is up or down, speculation about which banking or industrial sector will benefit must be premature."

"Sacking the government won't save Russia," says a headline over a column by David Hearst. Hearst writes: "The tolerance shown to Boris Yeltsin in sickness or in health, drunk or sober, is simply explained. He has suited what a collective of Western governments perceived as their short-term interests."

WASHINGTON POST: Kremlinology not dead

Editorial in The Washington Post: "After six full years of transition, Russia's economy remains bogged down, while nations that more decisively cast off their communist ways, like Poland or Estonia, resumed economic growth long ago. Is that why President Yeltsin fired his loyal premier, along with the rest of the cabinet? It's impossible to say for sure; Kremlinology did not die with the Soviet Union."

LEIPZIGER VOLKSZEITUNG: Kremlin astrologers busy

Commentary in Leipziger Volkszeitung: "Kremlin astrologers are busy again. The only predictable thing about Boris Yeltsin is his unpredictability."

EL PAIS: Yeltsin settles doubts

From Spain's El Pais: "Who is in command in Russia? If Yeltsin's sickness raised any doubts, the president settled them yesterday."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Yeltsin keeps ministers on their toes

From an editorial in Britain's Financial Times: "Boris Yeltsin likes to keep his ministers on their toes. His decision yesterday to sack the entire government certainly achieved that. What it will mean for the future of economic reform in Russia is not so clear."

MARKISCHE ODERZEITUNG: Ministers sacked, problems unsolved

And from Frankfurt-Oder, the Markische Oderzeitung seems to speak concisely for most: "More than 25 ministers have lost their jobs during the Yeltsin regime, without one of the country's problems being solved."