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Russia/Yugoslavia: Chernomyrdin's Appointment Signals Hope For Diplomacy

Moscow, 16 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The appointment of Viktor Chernomyrdin to be Russia's special envoy to Yugoslavia marks a degree of political rehabilitation for a man who had served for six years as his country's prime minister until he was unceremoniously fired just over one year ago. Our Moscow correspondent, Floriana Fossato, reports on developments surrounding his new job:

After sacking Viktor Chernomyrdin as Russia's prime minister in March of last year, Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposed him again for the post last September.

The Communist and nationalist-dominated State Duma blocked the move at the time and forced Yeltsin to appoint then-foreign minister, now Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov instead.

Parliament could do nothing on Wednesday, however, when Yeltsin named Chernomyrdin as his special envoy on Yugoslavia.

As international diplomatic efforts to solve the Kosovo crisis seem to be increasing, Yeltsin's surprise appointment of Chernomyrdin has important international, as well as domestic, implications.

From one side, Chernomyrdin seems to have been picked because -- amidst strong anti-NATO rhetoric in Moscow -- he has been more restrained in his criticisms of the West over the air strikes on Yugoslavia.

Describing his recipe for the settlement of the Yugoslav crisis, Chernomyrdin told the daily "Kommersant" that he is prepared to push a line of "negotiations and more negotiations."

He said that "there are no ready prescriptions," adding that Russia should, quoting, "remain cool" and "control" its "nerves." He said Russia "should not clench [its] teeth and must keep on talking." He added, "We also should not bare our teeth."

The government and the Kremlin are under pressure from Communists and nationalists to offer economic and military support to Serbia. Chernomyrdin criticized such proposals in his interview with "Kommersant."

He said "the negotiating process can be tiresome, tough and conflicting," but that it is "the only way to reach peace in the Balkans, to pacify NATO generals." And, he added, negotiations cannot be compared "to steps such as various sanctions, supplying the conflicting sides with weapons, sending volunteers, let alone Russia's military intervention."

In television footage broadcast yesterday, Yeltsin said Chernomyrdin had been chosen "because he is intelligent, strong and enjoys authority abroad." Yeltsin said Chernomyrdin "knows [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic and can speak with him as nobody else can."

In a response to the appointment, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea yesterday also suggested that the West takes Chernomyrdin seriously:

"Mr. Chernomyrdin is a very experienced diplomat, a statesman. He's a heavyweight figure, there's no doubt about that. And if he can do something, then, as I say, that would be all for the better. But we will judge by the results."

Some observers in Moscow say Yeltsin may be hoping that Chernomyrdin, who has kept strong ties with Gazprom -- one of the world's largest gas companies and a key player in gas exports to Western Europe, including Yugoslavia -- could use his influence on the company he helped create to mollify Milosevic's positions.

Chernomyrdin would be a more pragmatic counterpart in talks with Western officials than Primakov or Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. The foreign minister, in particular, has used harsh Cold War language to describe NATO and the West since the strikes began.

Chernomyrdin immediately started working on his new task. Chernomyrdin yesterday met German officials in Moscow to discuss a proposal put forward by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Fischer said Russia "almost fully agreed" to his plan to get Serbian forces out of Kosovo and replace them with an international force with a U.N. mandate.

Officials in Moscow say Chernomyrdin may soon meet German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to discuss the plan.

According to a front-page article in "Kommersant," Chernomyrdin's appointment is a sign "that Yeltsin is unhappy with the Balkan policies of the government and of the foreign ministry. The president indicated that he wants to put an end to the confrontation course with the West, and revealed [the name of] his likely successor."

Chernomyrdin has openly said he wants to run for president in the year 2000. But since his dismissal last year, most political analysts in Russia have written him off as a spent force. Chernomyrdin's appointment on Wednesday is seen in Moscow as confirmation of persistent rumors that Yeltsin intends to counterweight Primakov's rising power and popularity.

In recent remarks, Yeltsin indicated he fears an alliance of his Communist foes and that Primakov could cause a reversal in his state policies ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.

Yeltsin said menacingly in remarks broadcast by Russian television last Friday that "at this stage, Primakov is useful -- later, we shall see."

Primakov replied the next day, also in a televised comment. He said he is not clinging to his cabinet post, "especially since a timeframe for my work is being set."

A direct replacement of the prime minister now would cause an immediate confrontation between president and parliament. The Kremlin admits privately that they are aware Yeltsin's power is too weak to embark on such a course.

Until Wednesday, a less radical option being considered was the replacement of some of Primakov deputies who are Communist Party members. Chernomyrdin was one of the politicians widely tipped to be a candidate for the replacement of First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov.

His appointment as main peacemaker on Kosovo seems to be a more refined version of that move. "Kommersant" said yesterday that Yeltsin "named a parallel prime minister."

However, Chernomyrdin's appointment seems also to be a signal to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. On Tuesday, Yeltsin held a lengthy meeting with Luzhkov, another leading contender for the presidency.

The meeting was the second in less than one month after protracted chilly relations. After the meeting, some commentators said Luzhkov seemed to emerge as Yeltsin's heir apparent. Seemingly confirming this view, Luzhkov -- who until recently was routinely calling on Yeltsin to resign -- criticized the Duma's attempts to impeach the president.

Chernomyrdin's appointment seems to be a signal for both Primakov and Luzhkov that Yeltsin has not yet made up his mind who to support as his successor.