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Western Press Review: Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin, Kiriyenko Are Names To Conjecture With

By Don Hill and Alexandre d'Aragon

Prague, 30 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The way a number of Western commentators figure it today and over the weekend is this: Russian President Boris Yeltsin needs a crisis from time to time. He didn't have one close at hand early last week. So he made one.

NEWSDAY: Yeltsin has always been at his best under pressure

The U.S. East Coast newspaper Newsday carried Saturday a commentary by Yeltsin biographer Leon Aron about Yeltsin's sudden dismissal Monday of the entire government. Aron wrote that the decision was vintage Yeltsin. Aron wrote: "It is in crisis and under pressure that Yeltsin has always been at his best; it is there that he has made some of his most brilliant decisions. If there is no crisis, Yeltsin nudges the events along and creates one."

The commentator said: "Furthermore, in one fell swoop, Yeltsin's Monday morning massacre may have eliminated one of the most damaging political obstacles to a Russian economic takeoff: the absence of a progressive tax code." That's because, Aron said: "The Communist-dominated Duma has been sitting on a new tax code for more than half a year, refusing to pass it so long as the Communists' No. 1 enemy, Russian privatization czar and first deputy prime minister, Anatoly Chubais, was in the government. By singling out Chubais' dismissal in a special decree, Yeltsin may have signaled a quid pro quo to parliament: I fired Chubais, now you confirm the prime minister and, as part of the customary political honeymoon, approve the tax legislation."

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: There is a pattern in Yeltsin's behavior

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She wrote Saturday: "Whenever Boris Yeltsin seems defeated or dying, the Russian president rises like Lazarus and astounds his would-be eulogists. But there is a pattern to Yeltsin's unpredictable behavior, into which his sudden dismissal of the entire Russian government on Monday fits like a nesting doll. It's not a pattern that makes for a healthy democracy. But once you see its outline, Russian politics don't seem as incomprehensible as they looked this week.

"At the center of the design is a leader who thrives on crises. No matter how ill he may be, Yeltsin is revivified by any threat to his tenure. Only last week Muscovites feared their leader was dying, but clearly something jolted him back to life."

WASHINGTON POST: Yeltsin functions best in crises

The author of an editorial that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post seems to have been a reader of the previous day's Aron commentary in Newsday. The Post said: "Russian President Boris Yeltsin functions best in crises. Last Monday, in the absence of any external stimulus, he created a crisis himself, firing his longtime prime minister and his entire cabinet. Throughout the week, Mr. Yeltsin seemed to relish the uncertainty he had caused and the attention he had drawn to himself as he waited to announce replacements."

DERNIERES NOUVELLES D'ALSACE: Largest country in the world plays Russian roulette

Whether or not Yeltsin is crisis addicted, Jean-Claude Kiefer writes in today's Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace, published in Strasbourg: "Let's face it. What's going on in Russia is totally incomprehensible to Western logic. President Boris Yeltsin sacks his whole government and calls upon a young man, Sergei Kiriyenko, no doubt competent but virtually unknown in the immensity of the empire. As for the fallen prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, he announces his candidacy for the presidential election of the year 2000. Apparently not worth the trouble, since Chernomyrdin is as unpopular (in Russia) as the unpaid thousands of millions of rubles in salaries and pensions."

Kiefer says: "Once more, the largest country on Earth is playing Russian roulette with its future. And this situation is beginning to be tiring. The West can't rely on an unpredictable partner. Moscow wants to be the third Rome. But the Kremlin is cultivating the habits of the second Rome, those from Byzantium."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Yeltsin is still the ultimate arbiter of political power

The British newspaper Financial Times affirms Yeltsin's political weight in an editorial today but casts doubt on his judgment -- not its quality, its existence. The Financial Times says: "The events of the past week in Russia have proved one thing: Boris Yeltsin is still the ultimate arbiter of political power. Whether he knows what he is doing is more open to question. He has sacked his government just because he appeared to be tired of it, and appointed political neophyte to form a new administration. He seems to expect the same contradictory mix of political and economic policies to be pursued as before, but he is doing nothing to make that task any easier. Mr Yeltsin is becoming part of Russia's problem, not its solution.

"Sergei Kiriyenko, the hapless technocrat who has been thrust into the prime minister's job, has one apparent advantage: no one knows enough about him to oppose his appointment. Although he comes from the reformers' camp in the government, he may well be able to maneuver his way past the apparent hostility of the communists in the Russian Duma, and thus gain parliamentary endorsement. But that will be only the start of his problems."

LE SOIR: Kiriyenko is Yeltsin's joker

In Brussels over the weekend, Pol Mathil contributed this commentary to Le Soir: "If Yeltsin's poker is not a bluff, we should finally see the arrival of a new generation at the head of Russia. Yeltsin knows all too well that with the old apparatus, he won't get anywhere, that the principle of having the post-soviet economy managed by old staffers has gone bankrupt, and that, if it goes on, Russia itself will go bankrupt. Kiriyenko, the prime minister without roots in sovietism, is Yeltsin's joker, it's his chance to succeed with transition, to avoid that, after him, Russia should fall in the hands of impostors and usurpers."

NEW YORK TIMES: Most Russians barely know Kiriyenko

Also over the weekend, The New York Times seemed to agree that Kiriyenko represents new blood, but to fear for his prospects. The Times said: "Americans unfamiliar with Russia's new prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, are not alone. Most Russians barely know him, either." The editorial says: "That may be one reason Yeltsin picked him. With less than four months' service in the Yeltsin Cabinet as fuel and energy minister, Kiriyenko lacks the institutional and political support to challenge Yeltsin now or in the next elections in 2000, should the Russian president run again."

And includes: "The task awaiting Kiriyenko is formidable. Russia's economy is improving, but not yet healthy. A small group of businessmen and bankers exercises disproportionate influence over the economy and political system. He is surrounded by opponents, many more experienced in manipulating their colleagues. Above all he must contend with Yeltsin, who has bounced one aide after another during his turbulent presidency."