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Russia: U.S. Says Primakov Firing An Internal Matter

Washington, 13 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States says Russian President Boris Yeltsin's firing of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov is an internal political matter that should not have an adverse impact on Russo-American relations.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Wednesday Washington expects Moscow to stay on the path of economic reform. And, he said, the United States believes Russia will continue to play a constructive role in trying to find a peaceful settlement for Kosovo.

U.S.-Russian relations have been tense in recent weeks over Moscow's opposition to the NATO air war trying to dislodge Serb forces from Kosovo. The administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton is trying to get Russian support for a diplomatic solution to the Balkan crisis that would allow all refugees to return to Kosovo, the stationing of an international peacekeeping force in the province and autonomy for the ethnic Albanians.

Primakov was appointed in September after Russia's economy took a turn for the worse. In firing him Wednesday, Yeltsin praised Primakov for stabilizing the political life of Russia but criticized him for avoiding tough economic decisions.

Said Yeltsin: "The caution of the prime minister, his readiness to take only measures that would receive the maximum approval and support, is starting to create harm."

Yeltsin named Sergei Stepashin, a long-time ally, as acting prime minister. The position needs confirmation by the Russian state Duma, which is largely dominated by communists.

Following the appointment, Stepashin said he is committed to reforms. Said Stepashin: "We have only one goal today: to advance with clear and tough market reforms."

Just two weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund provisionally agreed to lend Russia $4.5 billion over 18 months. Asked if Washington still supports the package, White House spokesman Lockhart said that the political players are not as important as are core policy matters such as moving toward economic reform, the revamping of the banking system and improving tax collection.

Still, the IMF said it was seeking information on the new government's plans. The fund has made it clear in the past that loan payments would depend on Russia's market reforms.

Political analysts say Yeltsin's move also may have been motivated by the impending impeachment debate in the Duma seeking to constitutionally oust the president.

Neither the White House nor the State Department would comment on Yeltsin's motive in dismissing his prime minister.

At the regular State Department briefing Wednesday, spokesman James Rubin offered this comment:

"We don't think it's useful to speculate from this podium on the reasons why President Yeltsin removed Prime Minister Primakov; that's an internal decision. We do expect to continue to have a constructive working relationship with the Russian government on a broad range of issues because of the mutual interests we have in working together on subjects as varied as arms control, economic matters and most recently and importantly, the subject of Kosovo." But independent political analysts cautioned that Washington should not expect much help from the Russians on Kosovo.

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a Russian expert at the Brookings Institution (a non-government think tank in Washington), said: "It is dangerous in terms of American interests to rely on the Russians excessively on something like Kosovo."

Rubin also commented on ongoing talks in Moscow between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Kremlin's Balkans envoy, on how to resolve the Kosovo crisis.

Rubin said: "With respect to progress, let me say that there are still wide gaps between Russia and the United States on the key questions of the composition of the international security force, on the time table and verification of the withdrawal of Serb forces."

The State Department spokesman added: "The Russian position has been the same all along. The Russians do not support NATO bombing. They've never supported NATO bombing. They would always take the view that NATO bombing should stop. That has been their position since NATO bombing started."