Moscow, 26 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As Russia's President Boris Yeltsin was meeting Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl and France's President Jacques Chirac, acting Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko was chairing a meeting of the Russian government. Observers believe this is a sign Kiriyenko's chances of being nominated permanently to replace the ousted Viktor Chernomyrdin appear to have increased, and follows Kiriyenko obtaining the endorsement of some political and business figures.
In remarks at the end of the two-hour, Yeltsin-Kohl-Chirac meeting, Yeltsin described the European "troika" summit -- the first of its kind -- as a "meeting among friends," and said he and German and French leaders had discussed "practical questions of trilateral cooperation." He said he and the other leaders were developing a "Moscow-Paris-Bonn axis."
However, the meeting -- originally scheduled to take place in Yeltsin's home town of Yekaterinburg -- has been clearly overshadowed this week by Yeltsin's abrupt dismissal of Chernomyrdin, who had been a long-time Yeltsin supporter. Most observers in Moscow have agreed that the main reason behind the cabinet reshuffle is to be found in Yeltsin's increasing distaste for Chernomyrdin's growing independence in the last few months.
As expected, no documents were signed at the Yeltsin-Kohl-Chirac meeting, at which the three leaders pledged to strengthen the economic and political partnership between Russia and Western Europe. Russia set the agenda for the meeting, which included hot spots, such as Iraq and Kosovo. At the news conference following the meeting, Kohl and Chirac did not give details of the talks, but praised the improving ties between Russia and the European Union.
Kohl's statement today that "the future path of the European Union will always be closely linked to Russia" seemed aimed at tempering Yeltsin's more enthusiastic words that Russia's membership in a "greater Europe" would ensure Europe's dominant role in the world.
The three leaders met in bright sunshine at a residence south of Moscow that in Soviet times had been reserved for top Communist Party dignitaries. Their schedule also includes an afternoon walk in the pine forest surrounding the Bor residence.
Most observers expected that Yeltsin would use the opportunity of the walk to give his guests details of his surprise Monday cabinet shake-up. Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said yesterday that Yeltsin would likely brief his guests on the motivations behind the decision, that has caused high speculation in Moscow.
Kohl and Chirac had met the 35-year-old Kiriyenko, as he was dispatched by Yeltsin last night to meet the European guests.
Bonn and Paris, so far, have played down the upheaval, saying it was a domestic matter and stressed that the key issue is Yeltsin's stated determination to move forward with reform.
Kiriyenko, a little know former oil executive, who came to Moscow from Nizhny Novgorod as a protg of Boris Nemtsov in March 1997, was initially dismissed as a transitional figure, because of his youth and short cabinet tenure. But consensus seems to be growing that his nomination could become permanent, as an increasing number of politicians and businessmen predicted that Yeltsin will seek to confirm him, despite opposition expressed by Communist leaders in the State Duma.
Influential business tycoon and Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, yesterday called Kiriyenko a "young man full of energy." He said that Kiriyenko has a "realistic" chance of being nominated Prime Minister by Yeltsin, and that the nomination has an equally realistic chance of being approved by the State Duma.
Many observers and Russian media suggest Berezovsky may have played a role in the shake-up. But they say they doubt that Berezovsky, who is seen as an opponent of those responsible for reformer in the former Cabinet, could have initially supported Kiriyenko's nomination. And, his comments -- from a man believed to have contributed to the ousting of Chernomyrdin -- seem to indicate the powerful businessman has acknowledge an inability to put forward, as least for the moment, the man said to be his candidate for the post of prime minister, former Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Rybkin.
Kiriyenko is seen as close to former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. According to Nemtsov and other Russian politicians lumped in 'the reformist camp,' Kiriyenko is an "independent man, a skilled manager and a cautious politician." He is also a man, they say, who, during his tenure in the politically sensitive Fuel and Energy ministry, has largely proved he's able to stand firmly for the interests of the state, while, at the same time, bearing in mind the interests of the powerful oil and energy lobbies.
Another powerful businessman, the President of the major oil producer, Lukoil, Vagit Alekperov, has praised Yeltsin's possible nomination of Kiriyenko and described him as "highly professional, dynamic and trustworthy."
And Yevgeny Yasin, an economic expert and former cabinet minister, said the shake-up will bring no major shifts in Russia's economic policy. Yasin also praised Kiriyenko's possible nomination as sound, in connection with the necessity for a cabinet policy focusing on the economy and the financial markets.
Yeltsin's economic advisor, Aleksandr Livshits, who is seen as close to Berezovsky, said Kiriyenko is at the moment the "strongest candidate" for prime minister, and added that the President is likely to propose Kiriyenko's candidacy to the Duma, which must confirm the appointment of the prime minister.
While the Moscow political rumor mill speculated about the fate of the young official, Kiriyenko spent the last two days holding polite consultations with parliamentary and regional leaders, and today chaired his first Cabinet session, devoted mostly to routine questions.
Since his appointment, Kiriyenko has skillfully avoided suggesting he hopes his temporary appointment will become permanent. In interviews in the last few days, during his political meetings and also during the Cabinet session this morning he cut short any attempt to talk about the composition of the new cabinet, saying his job was "to prepare the conception of the government's activities for the president."
Observers in Moscow say his careful comments will likely please Yeltsin, who is expected to visit the government headquarters tomorrow to hear Kiriyenko's outline of the new cabinet's plan of action. If Yeltsin may be pleased with his choice, first signs that the Communist and nationalist opposition in the State Duma opposes the Kiriyenko's nomination came after Kiriyenko met Communist leaders, who dominate the lower house of parliament.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said his party would not back any candidate for prime minister, unless the government changed its course. And, State Duma Chairman Gennady Seleznev, a prominent Communist, said he had asked presidential Chief-of-Staff Valentin Yumashev to tell Yeltsin that Kiriyenko does not have enough experience to lead the government.
Zyuganov has reiterated his party's demand to form a coalition government, including members of the opposition. Yeltsin, so far, has rejected the demands, and top officials have said the new cabinet should be a team of professionals, rather then a coalition of political parties.
However, most observers in Moscow have dismissed the Communists' threats and have said the Communist and nationalist opposition in the Duma is trying to exploit changes in the government to extract concessions from the Kremlin. According to the Russian Constitution, Yeltsin could disband the Duma if it refuses a presidential nominee three times, and the majority of observers in Moscow predict that deputies will not risk losing their parliamentary prestige and influence.
A Moscow commentator, who wished to remain anonymous, tells RFE/RL that, "if Kiriyenko will be the proposed presidential candidate, deputies will vote him down once, probably twice, and, if his name is still there for the third vote, they will approve him, as they will approve any other candidate." He added that "the key point here is to see whether Yeltsin will really propose Kiriyenko to the Duma."
At the news conference following his meeting with Kohl and Chirac, Yeltsin declined to say whether he will nominate Kiriyenko as prime minister, but dismissed criticism that Kiriyenko is too young for the job.