Moscow, 30 March 1999 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin, increasingly sidelined by illness and facing parliamentary impeachment proceedings next month, gave his annual address today before both houses of the Russian parliament.
The presidential address is an important occasion for Russia's political elites. However, today's negotiating mission to Belgrade by Prime Minister Yevegeny Primakov appeared to steal attention from Yeltsin. Only two hours after his address, some Russian media newscasts were already focusing on Primakov's trip, instead of on Yeltsin's speech.
That was true despite the fact that Yeltsin focused during his address on the Kosovo crisis and on his personal role in directing Primakov's mission:
"Today, in accordance with the constitution, I am presenting my yearly speech on the state of the nation. But this is the first time I have delivered this speech at such a dramatic moment. Strikes by NATO on Yugoslavia are still underway --they were intentionally begun without the involvement of the UN Security Council, and are against the UN charter, against reason and common sense. People are dying and international law is endangered."
He then added:
"But now, we can't lose time. Primakov has received instructions from me [for his diplomatic mission to Belgrade]. I think our word will be decisive in this conflict."
Despite his criticism of the NATO air strikes, Yeltsin made clear Russia would go only so far in opposing the Western alliance:
"Russia has made its choice. We will not allow ourselves to be drawn into military conflict."
Yeltsin added that he did not want the dispute to undermine Moscow's relationship with the United States and Europe. He said: "The tragic mistake of the United States on the Kosovo issue should not turn into a prolonged crisis in the Russian-U.S. partnership." He again called for ratification of the START-Two nuclear arms reduction treaty by the Russian parliament.
Besides tensions over Yugoslavia, the main part of Yeltsin's speech was devoted to Russia's economy and politics.
Yeltsin underlined the importance of internal developments, when he said that "Russia's citizens are, of course, concerned about Yugoslavia, but they are even more concerned about Russia." He said "Our influence in the world arena depends on how we solve our problems at home."
In the address, titled "Russia on the edge of epochs," Yeltsin defended his record of political and economic reform. Yeltsin recognized past mistakes, but tried to share the blame between executive authorities and legislators.
In a comment directed at his communist foes and their sympatizers in the present government, Yeltsin said Russia had been right to pursue market reform, and that despite mistakes, moving backwards would only make things worse.
Yeltsin, who reportedly feels challenged by Primakov's growing grip on power, praised the prime minister's role in avoiding a major collapse after the August financial meltdown. He said: "The significant achievement of these months is that we did not take a sharp downward roll."
But Yeltsin added that now the work of the government, especially concerning financial and economic matters, should begin a new phase. He said three tasks face the country:
"The first is to get out of crisis by entirely preserving economic and political freedoms. The second, and no less important, is the forming of new authorities, and to achieve this, in correspondence with the constitution, carrying out elections under a reliable timetable. I guarantee that these elections will be carried out honestly and cleanly."
And third, in what seemed to be a clear message to Primakov, Yeltsin said the government must fight attempts to return to past practices. He said that includes attempts to reintroduce "economic planning, censorship in the media" and a Cold-War-style foreign policy. He also spoke out against those who would resist Russia's integration into the world economy and who call, in his words, "for the appointment of regional leaders from Moscow."
Many of these positions are openly supported by the communists and some have been mentioned in recent public remarks by Primakov.
They constitute, said Yeltsin, "a revanche program. And there is only one alternative," he added, "the appearence of new people in Russian politics."
Reactions to Yeltsin's address were mixed among politicians present in the Kremlin. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov dismissed the speech, saying that Yeltsin is "saying silly things and does not even understand what he's talking about."
The leader of the Centrist parliamentary group Our Home Is Russia, Vladimir Ryzhkov, called it a "mediocre speech." Ryzhkov said the address "again did not include any proposal on how to strengthen the role of the state."
The deputy leader of the parliamentary Yabloko group, Sergei Ivanenko, said the President's position should be supported. He told RFE/RL that Russia "needs a government that will implement Yeltsin's address."
In his comments to RFE/RL, Moscow Mayor and presidential hopeful Yuri Luzhkov found both good and bad in the speech:
"I support everything [Yeltsin said] concerning Yugoslavia. He was correct on the main aspects [of the Yugoslav crisis.] But on internal issues, I think there is much to debate. I think we ought to talk not about [international market] competition, but about the organization of a real internal market."
Observers in Moscow believe that in recent days, Luzhkov has been seeking to improve relations with Yeltsin as part of a manuever to marginalize Primakov. Luzhkov has also sought to allign his positions with the pro-reform Yabloko bloc.