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Western Press Review: Yeltsin Strikes Again

By Joel Blocker/Dora Slaba

Prague, 24 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin yesterday dismissed a government he himself had appointed only last March and reinstated Viktor Chernomyrdin as acting prime minister. The sudden, surprise move attracts a good deal of commentary today in the Western press, with analysts seeking to assess both the reasons for the action and its likely effects.

NEW YORK TIMES: Yeltsin's latest surprise move is an act of desperation

In a news analysis for the New York Times today, Moscow correspondent Celestine Bohlen asks: "What can you say about a president who fires his government, then reappoints the prime minister he fired five months ago, at a moment when his country is teetering on the edge of financial collapse?" She writes further: " If nothing else, the latest surprise move by President Boris Yeltsin of Russia is widely seen as an act of desperation, carried out at a moment when his political credibility and clout are in danger of being swept away by Russia's latest financial shock waves." The analysis continues: "One question now is whether Yeltsin is trying to salvage his own leadership at the expense of the program of economic reform that he has embraced since coming to power seven years ago. Another more troubling question is whether Yeltsin, who at 67 (years of age) has seemed increasingly infirm in rare recent public appearances, is orchestrating this latest political upheaval himself, or whether he has already become a figurehead manipulated by unseen forces -- doomed to repeat the pathetic performance of some of the Soviet Union's last ailing leaders."

Bohlen goes on to say: "The sudden dismissal of Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, which had been rumored in Moscow all weekend, was in itself not so surprising, considering the political storms that blew up this week over the Government's decision to let the ruble drop in value and to freeze Russian debts. Kiriyenko, a 36-year-old former banker, was chosen by Yeltsin in March in part because he had no political base and was thus free to make unpopular decisions. Sunday night, he was dismissed essentially for the same reason." And she adds: "In reappointing the 60-year-old Viktor Chernomyrdin, an old-style Soviet manager, Yeltsin is reaching out to a familiar political figure, whose ties stretch deep into the back benches of the anti-Yeltsin opposition in the Russian parliament and also to the so-called 'oligarchs,' as Russia's band of politically powerful bankers and tycoons are known. Chernomyrdin offers the prospect of a government with a broader base of political support, which could blunt the opposition, and quell its unending debate over whether the president should be impeached."

SUEDDEUTSCH ZEITUNG: Yeltsin did what he has always done

Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung describes the move as "Yeltsin's Dangerous Breach of Promise" in an editorial today. The paper writes: "Boris Yeltsin is rowing backward in order to prevent being drawn into a stream which could ground him totally.. Russia's President had nothing to fear from the resolution calling for his resignation that the State Duma adopted on Friday (Aug. 21). But he did find himself in a situation in which abandoning his office might have been unavoidable. Yeltsin has come dangerously close to leaving office ever since he broke his word about not devaluating the ruble. The (effective) devaluation carried out last week, hedged with provisos, constituted an admission that neither injections from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) nor the annulment of international debts could improve Russia's economy significantly."

The SZ then asks: "What else could Yeltsin have done now? He did what he has always done when in a tight corner: He changed his personnel. The inexperienced Kiriyenko had to go, and Viktor Chernomyrdin, fired last March, returns to head the government. (Chernomyrdin) provides a big advantage for Yeltsin because he belongs to an establishment which has survived the Soviet Union. He knows how to deal both with the new oligarchy and the old functionaries. He will leave Yeltsin with the illusion that he is still sitting firmly in the (presidential) saddle. That is precisely his (that is, Chernomyrdin's) task."

GUARDIAN: Mr. Yeltsin may be has lost his grip on power

Britain's Guardian newspaper carries a commentary by James Meek, who also asks: "What really brought Chernomyrdin back?" He answers: "(It) may be because Mr. Yeltsin has lost his grip on power."

Meek writes further: "Being obliged to recall a prime minister five months after banishing him to the wilderness is a grave blow to Boris Yeltsin's prestige --so grave that it may signal the beginning of the end of his hold on the presidency. Until Mr. Yeltsin appears in public to explain his latest action, there will be doubts whether he wanted to bring back Viktor Chernomyrdin or was forced to do so against his wishes"

The commentary continues: "The President sacked Mr. Chernomyrdin (in March) because he feared that his power was beginning to rival his own, and because the prime minister was incapable of coping with the looming debt mountain. But his departure deprived both the Yeltsin entourage and the business elite of their most important asset: protection....In recent months, however, (Yeltsin's) fear of Mr. Chernomyrdin usurping the president have been over come by the fear of their leader being usurped by someone far more dangerous."

Meek concludes: "The end of the short prime ministerial career of Sergei Kiriyenko is not an earthquake. The re-appointment of a discredited bureaucrat is another step towards the degeneration of Russia's rulers in the eyes of the world. Like the ruble, Russian government is (now) devalued."

FINANCIAL TIMES: The gambit may fail

The Financial Times calls its editorial "Yeltsin Strikes Back". The paper begins by saying: "It is easy to dismiss Boris Yeltsin as a drunken and erratic despot. (But) that would be an error," the FT's editorial goes on. "He has repeatedly proved himself a bold and successful tactician. Once more, he has seized the initiative by dismissing...Kiriyenko and bringing back ... Chernomyrdin, whom Mr. Kiriyenko replaced."

The editorial continues: "Unfortunately, Mr. Yeltsin's tactical brilliance is more than out-weighed by his strategic failings. With Russia drowning in a financial crisis that Mr. Chernomyrdin's short-sightedness and Mr. Yeltsin's inconsistency have done so much to create, hopes for reform must be close to dead."

The paper adds: "Mr. Chernomyrdin has little charisma and less credibility, but the shift may provide Mr. Yeltsin with the backing he needs to survive until the end of his term. Yet (that) gambit One reason would be that a man (that is, Chernomyrdin) so closely associated with the origin of the problem is not a convincing source of the solution. Another is that the President has thrown Russia's Government into a limbo of unknown duration (at a time) when a host of difficult decisions on financial restructuring and monetary and fiscal policy must be taken."

The FT concludes: "An obvious question is whether this is more or less the end of the line for Mr. Yeltsin. But the biggest concern must be for Russia itself. Can reform survive the collapse of the ruble peg, the Government's credit-worthiness and the Government itself? Only a bold optimist would answer yes."

INDEPENDENT: Mr. Yeltsin has finally run out of ideas

In the Independent today, Moscow correspondent Phil Reeves asks another question: "So what happens next?" He responds: "Russia can't pay its debts. Its banks are teetering on the brink (of disaster). And Boris Yeltsin has sacked his prime minister and government for the second time in a year, condemning the nation to another bout of political limbo."

Reeves' analysis goes on: "Mr. Yeltsin's shake-up looks very much like that of a leader who, with less than two years to run on his second term, has finally run out of ideas....(Chernomyrdin) will be seen by many Russians as soiled goods. Popular faith in the ability of Russian politicians to offer remedies for their multitude of ailments has been declining....On the streets of the capital (last night, some Russians) simply described (the move) as a 'joke.'"

Reeves adds: "Cynicism about the system could hardly run any deeper --a disturbing prospect for a country that has only been trying to build democracy for less than (10 years)....An election is due in less than two years. The sense that Mr. Yeltsin, his Government, and the wealthy elite who support it, are groping in the dark could easily prompt Russians to veer in another direction, towards a more unsavory political leadership."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Mr. Chernomyrdin probably spells more gradual reform

The Wall Street Journal Europe carries an analysis by two of its Moscow correspondents, Betsy McKay and Andrew Higgins. They write: "Mr. Kiriyenko's team...was the most reformist cabinet Russia ever had. But it ran into fierce opposition to the belt-tightening it said was necessary to turn the economy around....The return of Mr. Chernomyrdin most probably spells a return to a slower, more gradual pace of reform, and a greater emphasis on compromise."

Their analysis continues: "The key issue is what kind of government he forms....The calming figure of Mr. Chernomyrdin could help avert a run on Russia's banks....(In any case,) U.S. President Bill Clinton will go to Moscow next week as planned."

The WSJ analysis goes on to say: "Mr. Kiriyenko...wanted to push a bankruptcy law through the Duma that would have made the banks' owners and share-holders responsible for their assets -- in part, the assets of depositors....'Kiriyenko had a choice -- either bail out the banking sector or let it go to the wall, said a Western diplomat (in Moscow). 'Chernomyrdin will probably turn around and bail them out.'"