Hours after abruptly firing his prime minister and 30-member Cabinet, President Boris Yeltsin went on national television Monday and declared that “new views and fresh approaches” are needed to revive Russia’s struggling economy.
A grim Yeltsin did not explain what had prompted him to jettison his top officials without warning but said the government must move more aggressively to improve living conditions of the Russian people.
The president, whose unpredictability long has confounded friends and foes alike, appeared most of all to target Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, whose own presidential aspirations had posed an increasing challenge to the frequently ailing Yeltsin.
“The country needs a new team that would be capable of achieving real and tangible results,” Yeltsin said. “We have brought about certain progress in the economy. But we still are lagging badly behind in the social sphere. People do not feel any change for the better.”
In dismissing Chernomyrdin, who had served as prime minister for more than five years, Yeltsin gave him the job of preparing a campaign for presidential elections scheduled in 2000. But it is unclear whose campaign he is supposed to organize - his own, Yeltsin’s or that of a candidate to be named later.
“You will learn two years from now or a bit earlier,” Chernomyrdin told reporters obliquely. But he accepted his dismissal stoically, saying, “This is not a catastrophe and there is no government crisis in the country.”
Chernomyrdin’s abrupt removal robbed the United States of its most direct line to the Russian leadership.
Yeltsin, 67, who had spent last week recovering from a bad sore threat, sought to make a clear statement to his rivals and the nation that he remains firmly in power. In his brief televised address, Yeltsin declared that he would temporarily serve as prime minister as well as president. But shortly afterward, the Kremlin announced that Sergei Kiriyenko - the just-fired fuel and energy minister - would become acting prime minister.
“I believe that the latest events came as a surprise to many,” Kiriyenko, 36, told reporters, “and I believe that most of all they were a surprise to me.”
Under Russia’s Constitution, the president’s firing of the prime minister automatically results in dismissal of all Cabinet ministers. The president asked most to stay in their posts while he chooses successors and many could be named to the same jobs or other top posts in the shuffle. Yeltsin expects to complete the reorganization by April 10, a spokesman said.
But in addition to Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin singled out two controversial figures for immediate dismissal: First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, mastermind of his economic policies, and Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, the only hawk from the Chechen War era who had remained in power.
Analysts said Kulikov, as powerful commander of the nation’s police agencies, was a growing irritant to Yeltsin because of his apparent desire to become an independent political force. “It has been clear for quite a while that Kulikov has been playing his own political game and he was not particularly secretive about it,” said Igor M. Klyamkin, director of the Institute of Political Analysis.
Some suspect that Kulikov and Chernomyrdin had both become too closely allied for Yeltsin’s comfort with powerful banking and commercial interests that have emerged in the new Russia. “But Yeltsin couldn’t just fire Kulikov,” Klyamkin said. “He had to balance his sacking with an equally meaningful gesture to keep the opposition in check. He chose to sacrifice Chubais - with his consent.”
Chubais, despised by Communists and businessmen alike for his austere economic policies, has long been a key adviser to Yeltsin. He orchestrated his successful re-election campaign in 1996, reorganized his staff, then took over as first deputy prime minister in charge of the economy.
Tainted in a scandal last fall over a $90,000 book advance, Chubais, 42, had been saying publicly lately that he was ready to leave government. After Yeltsin announced the firings, Chubais told reporters he had given Yeltsin his resignation in early February and only Monday did the president accept it.
Yeltsin’s decision to let Chubais go is likely to improve his relations with the Duma, the lower house of Parliament that is dominated by the president’ critics. Under the constitution, Yeltsin has two weeks to give the Duma his nomination for a new prime minister and the Duma then has a week to act. If the Duma rejects the president’s nominees three times, the law requires the president to disband the assembly and call new parliamentary elections.
With growing discontent across Russia, analysts said Yeltsin is not eager to push the Duma into a corner and will try to find an acceptable candidate - perhaps even Kiriyenko. “The sacking of Chubais is a clear message to the Duma: ‘Now in a tit-for-tat measure I expect you to approve of my new prime minister,’ ” said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Independent Institute for Strategic Studies.
The dismissals are likely to take the wind out of opposition protests planned for April and a no-confidence vote scheduled in the Duma. “The president has pre-empted us,” said Communist Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyev.