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Russia: Political Upheavals Reverberate Through CIS

Prague, 24 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's fellow members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are becoming accustomed to surprises from Moscow as Russia struggles with its deepening financial crisis.

But President Boris Yeltsin's sacking of the entire cabinet of Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko has sent shock waves through the CIS as well as further afield. So has the decision to replace Kiriyenko as prime minister with the veteran Viktor Chernomyrdin.

People are asking themselves whether this is the start of recuperation in Russia, or is it another desperate measure from a failing leadership in Moscow?

Only five months have passed since Yeltsin dismissed Chernomyrdin from the premiership and nominated Kiriyenko, as the bright young man with the dynamism and skill to lead Russia securely on the road of reform. Reality turned out to be different.

Yeltsin led a long and politically costly battle with parliament to gain confirmation of Kiriyenko. And instead of getting better, things in Russia in the following months have deteriorated dramatically into a full-blown crisis of confidence.

Not all of that was Kiriyenko's fault, in so far as falling world oil prices cut deeply into Russia's export earnings, and international investors were made pessimistic and cautious towards the Russian market by the ongoing Asian financial crisis. But now the country lies practically paralyzed, with the possibility of another distracting struggle to get Chernomyrdin accepted by a reluctant parliament.

Yeltsin has called for support from all Russians, inside and outside politics, for the change of the government. But not only Russians will be effected by the continuing turmoil.

As the dusty trains clatter daily between Kazakhstan and Russia, many of the passengers are small business people who make their living from cross border trade. For them the fall of the ruble has had immediate significance. Before the de facto devaluation of the ruble last week (Aug. 17), Kazakh traders were getting 75 Kazakh tenge for one dollar. Now it's 78 to the dollar and locals expect it to fall further. That's because the Kazakh currency is reflecting the weakness of the ruble.

In the Caucasian republic of Armenia, many families are worrying whether worsening economic conditions in Russia will result in any loss of jobs for the tens of thousands of Armenians who work unofficially there. Many of the jobs may be ill paid, but they represent a crucial income for those who can find no alternative work at home.

By contrast, in the republic of Georgia, most people shrug off the Russian developments. They are hoping that now that Turkey has replaced Russia as Georgia's biggest trading partner, their little country will be more insulated than it once was. In addition, Russian investment in Georgia is small, and trade between the two countries is carried out in dollars. Even in energy matters the little republic is independent of its giant neighbor.

Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, was one of the few CIS leaders who reacted promptly to the events in Moscow, saying he hopes they will enhance stability in Russia. Facing the Caspian sea, another small republic, namely oil-rich Azerbaijan, is also buoyant. The head of Social and Political Relations in the President's office, Rustam Mamedov, says he believes the CIS countries can weather the storm without worry. He says Chernomyrdin's return in Moscow is timely considering his past role in stabilizing the ruble.

Analysts say that the continuing upheavals in Russia could have a loosening affect on ties within the CIS, as member states reorient trade contacts away from Russia and more towards each other, to Asia, and to the West.

(Azerbaijani/Kazakh/Georgian/Armenian services have contributed to this story)