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Russia: Yeltsin Moves To Replace Berezovsky

Moscow, 5 March 1999 (RFE/RL -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin's move to dismiss the executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has briefly captured the attention of political observers in Moscow.

For most of yesterday, the possibility of a government shakeup dominated political talk in the Russian capital. That ended when the Kremlin late in the day announced the move to sack controversial tycoon-turned politician Boris Berezovsky from his CIS post.

The Kremlin announcement said Berezovsky had "exceeded the limits of his authority" and failed to fulfill Yeltsin's orders as CIS chairman. Only after this first announcement did the Kremlin say Yeltsin would seek the approval of other CIS heads of state for the decision.

Berezovsky, who is in Azerbaijan today as part of a CIS tour, told Radio Ekho Moskvy that Yeltsin, as president of Russia, "does not have the right to take this decision", noting that his dismissal would require agreement of all CIS heads of state.

Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, who met with Berezovsky today, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying that he was "surprised" by Yeltsin's decision. He said Berezovsky had been appointed by all 12 CIS heads of states and "if problems arise, they should be discussed collectively."

Berezovsky enjoys the support of most CIS presidents, but few in Moscow doubt Russia will eventually obtain agreement from other CIS countries on his dismissal. However, most analysts caution that Yeltsin, who reportedly started telephone consultations with CIS colleagues on the issue today, is likely to have to agree to some concessions if he wants to achieve quick approval.

Communist leaders in the Russian State Duma have reacted with exultation at the news of the firing, which is not surprising since Berezovsky has called for banning their party. Interfax news agency quoted Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov as saying that "justice has triumphed, at last."

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the centrist Our Home is Russia leader Vladimir Ryzhkov also welcomed Yeltsin's decision.

Before the announcement, the Duma's communist deputies had been reacting to what they had called a "coordinated" campaign against the government of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, which includes some top communist officials.

The Russian newswire "Argumenty I Fakty" claimed yesterday morning that the hospitalized Yeltsin was preparing to fire top officials close to the Communist Party from the cabinet. The "AiF" report alleged that Yeltsin last week told Primakov he had 10 days to purge his cabinet of communist members, or risk being sacked himself. The report was immediately amplified by Russian television channels, some of which are either controlled by Berezovsky or sympathetic to him.

Yeltsin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin dismissed the media reports as "complete rubbish and nonsense." Hours later, Kremlin administration head Nikolai Bordyuzha said the reports lacked grounds and repeated that Yeltsin and Primakov are n-o-t engaged in any confrontation.

As often happens in Moscow, Yakushkin and Bordyuzha's denials only caused even more speculation and a deluge of comments from upset Duma deputies.

Zyuganov threatened to force early parliamentary elections if the government team approved by the Duma last September is replaced. He called for clarification of the Kremlin's plans. (Insert Zyuganov Audio)

"If we do not receive logical answers to our questions, we will not be afraid of early elections and will actually push for them."

Rumors of a possible major government shakeup had been circulating widely in Moscow for the past few weeks. The rumors seemed to be reaching their peak this week, fueled by a furious media campaign focusing in particular on First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov.

After the "Argumenty I Fakty" report, Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev, himself a communist, called Primakov, who is vacationing at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. After the telephone conversation Seleznev said they had agreed that next week the prime minister will hold a special meeting with speakers of both houses of parliament, leaders of parliamentary factions and administration head Bordyuzha, to discuss the situation.

In the afternoon, Bordyuzha went to the Duma to meet Seleznev. He did not make any comment to journalists after the meeting, but Russian media reports today say he went straight to the Central Clinical Hospital, where Yeltsin is hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer. Late in the evening, after Bordyuzha returned to his Kremlin office, the announcement of Berezovsky's dismissal was made public.

Many political analysts in Moscow speculated today that Berezovsky's dismissal was the result of pressure on the Kremlin from Primakov and Seleznev, outraged by the media campaign against the government. According to Seleznev, the media rumors on Yeltsin's planned government sacking originated with Berezovsky.

"There is no doubt that what we are seeing now is a coordinated campaign against the present government. I think it is the same oligarchs controlling our television channels."

Earlier this week, Berezovsky lashed out at Primakov's government, saying it presents a "colossal danger" and lacks appreciation of liberal values and political and economic freedom. After these statements, rumors of a coming shakeup intensified.

While the move to dismiss Berezovsky has momentarily deflected some of the attention away from speculation over the future of the government, that isn't likely to last.

The daily "Vremya MN," commenting on Berezovsky's dismissal, writes today that his sacking could now be "traded" for the removal, or the resignation, of Maslyukov.

Maslyukov has come under intensified criticism for his handling of key negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). IMF officials have said they see no basis for a deal refinancing some $4.5 billion that Russia owes the Fund this year, in the absence of an agreement with Russia on a sound economic program.