WORLD

Yeltsin's surprise

A cabinet cleanout elevates a youthful reformer

MALCOLM GRAY April 6 1998
WORLD

Yeltsin's surprise

A cabinet cleanout elevates a youthful reformer

MALCOLM GRAY April 6 1998

Yeltsin's surprise

WORLD

RUSSIA

A cabinet cleanout elevates a youthful reformer

MALCOLM GRAY

Boris Yeltsin did all of the above with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin last week. Then, he promptly fired the five-year veteran and his entire 25-member team in Russia’s biggest cabinet shakeup since the collapse of communism. The surprise dismissals touched off an epidemic of head-scratching, arguments and conspiracy theories.

Why had he done it? Yeltsin himself supplied some of the answers, criticizing the outgoing team for lacking the ideas, energy and zeal to carry out Russia’s lagging program of economic reforms. Many Kremlinwatchers were quick to point out another reason, hinted at by Yeltsin. With presidential elections looming, Chernomyrdin and other key leaders were spending more time jockeying for the country’s top job than keeping Russia’s lurch towards capitalism on course.

its wage payments to teachers, soldiers and millions of state employees. And as ex-energy minister Kiriyenko is keenly aware, Russia, the world’s third-largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia and the United States, gets 25 per cent of its tax revenues from a commodity whose world price has declined steeply in recent months (page 48). Opposition factions in the Communist-dominated Duma, or lower house of parliament, are organizing nationwide demonstrations for April 9 to protest the ballooning wage shortfall.

By then, the Duma will have held its first vote on whether to confirm Kiriyenko, due within a week of his formal nomination by Yeltsin on March 27. Acceptance is far from certain, and Communist party Leader Gennady Zyuganov delivered a tepid assessment of the neophyte premier following a two-hour meeting with him last week. “He does not have full information about the situation in areas other than the one he has worked in,” complained Zyuganov. Still, many analysts hold that the Duma will eventually approve Yeltsin’s man. Rejection for a third time would allow the president to dissolve the legislature and rule by decree—his preferred mode— until new parliamentary elections are held months later. Moreover, most major opposition parties fear they would lose seats in any new voting.

The Duma can annoy Yeltsin and delay legislative approval of his policies, but the constitution that the president largely dictated five years ago overwhelmingly concentrates power in his hands. More likely, the immediate future will be shaped by powerful figures working behind the scenes for their own interests. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was among a chorus of political observers who noted that Boris Berezovsky, one of the most prominent of Russia’s new super-rich entrepreneurs, is also a financial adviser to Tatyana Dychenko—Yeltsin’s daughter and a trusted member of the president’s inner circle. According to Gorbachev and others, Berezovsky played a key role in the shakeup, which ousted his longtime political enemy, Chubais. As well, added Gorbachev, “For Berezovsky there is a connection between the cabinet reshuffle and the upcoming presidential elections”—namely, that the pro-market candidates will be seeking the backing of the country’s new rich. In Russia, even more than most places, money talks loudest of all.

How to make a Russian politician nervous: 1) Praise him repeatedly. 2) Give him a medal. 3) Describe him as irreplaceable.

“The presidential elections of the year 2000 are of primary importance to us,” « said Yeltsin. “The fate of the | country is at stake.”

With his trademark flair for the dramatic, the 67-year-old Yeltsin has again underlined his position as the most powerful political figure in Russia—and anything but a lame duck. The mass sackings left the field wide open for pro-reform candidates to succeed him—while retaining the possibility that ailing though he is, Yeltsin, too, might run for a third four-year term as president (a constitutional court will soon rule on whether he is allowed to). In any event, Yeltsin quickly indicated that many of the fired cabinet ministers would be reappointed. He directly suggested that outgoing Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev, who has the thankless job of reforming Russia’s decaying military forces, and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov needn’t clear out their desks. Many analysts also believed he would retain Boris Nemtsov, 38, the bushy-haired first vice-premier who in recent months has been touted as a possi-

ble successor to Yeltsin. In fact, Yeltsin astonished Russians by tapping 35-year-old Sergei Kiriyenko, a protégé of Nemtsov, to be prime minister. It has been little more than a year since the two young reformers travelled from the provincial town of Nizhny Novgorod, 400 km east of Moscow, to join the intrigues of the Kremlin.

Kiriyenko, a slightly built and little-known banker who entered the cabinet only in No-

vember, underlined at least one permanent aspect of the shakeup: he moved into the office vacated by controversial privatization czar Anatoly Chubais. The former first deputy vice-premier has long been a member of Yeltsin’s inner circle, but Chubais is unlikely to hold a formal government title for a while. He had become the most unpopular politician in the country because of the blatantly unfair way he sold off state assets to well-connected entrepreneurs at bargain-basement prices.

Despite the surprise element, Washington and other foreign capitals seemed reassured by Yeltsin’s assertions that the revamp did not signal a departure from free-market policies. But on the home front, there were clear signs of political clashes ahead. For one thing, Yeltsin issued his wake-up call in part because his regime is again falling behind in