New Russian Crisis, Old Team President's Decision Sunday to Reappoint Chernomyrdin Sets Reform Back Again

By Jean MacKenzie, Monitor and Judith Matloff writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1998 | Go to article overview

New Russian Crisis, Old Team President's Decision Sunday to Reappoint Chernomyrdin Sets Reform Back Again


Jean MacKenzie, Monitor and Judith Matloff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


With near default on foreign and domestic debt and a possible collapse of the banking system, this was a time when Russia needed firm leadership.

Instead, President Boris Yeltsin has sent out a message of instability, sacking his entire government and bringing back the prime minister he dismissed five months ago.

Analysts say the decision to reinstate Viktor Chernomyrdin, an old-style Soviet industry boss, was likely to undermine efforts by young reformers who had negotiated $22.6 billion in badly needed aid with foreign lenders to get the economy into shape.

"It's disastrous," says Al Breach, an economic analyst at the Moscow-based Russian-European Center for Economic Policy. "Chernomyrdin doesn't have the first idea how to deal with this crisis. He has never made a politically tough decision in his life."

In a somber television address on Monday, Mr. Yeltsin cited the world financial crisis and its effects on the Russian economy as the primary reason for Mr. Chernomyrdin's return. He also implicitly named him as heir apparent for elections in 2000.

"I believe it is necessary to bring in Chernomyrdin's experience and weight," Yeltsin said. "This offer is backed by another important consideration, namely, to ensure the continuity of authority in the year 2000."

But analysts note that one reason Yeltsin gave on March 23 for firing Chernomyrdin after five years as prime minister was that his Cabinet was slack on reforms. They say the ailing president, known for his erratic behavior, had taken things too far this time, throwing strong doubt on his ability to make coherent policy decisions.

"There's no sense looking for logic in anything that Yeltsin does," says Yuri Korgunyuk, a political analyst at the INDEM think tank in Moscow. "He has clearly demonstrated that he has absolutely no understanding of what is going on in the country."

The timing of Yeltsin's Sunday announcement was particularly perplexing since it came the night before the government planned to reveal the terms of a plan to restructure internal debt.

On March 23, Yeltsin suddenly removed Chernomyrdin, replacing him with the relatively obscure Sergei Kiriyenko, who was then fuel and energy minister. Despite initial doubts about his youth and inexperience, Mr. Kiriyenko proved tenacious in trying to push through tax reforms and austerity measures that donors said were crucial.

But Yeltsin may have felt he needed a scapegoat while his government pushed through unpopular measures. Kiriyenko lost much credibility last week when the ruble was devalued after the government continually ruled out such a measure.

The Communist-dominated Duma, the lower house of parliament, meanwhile threatened to block certain points of Kiriyenko's anti- crisis program and warning about a wave of social unrest if it were adopted.

YELTSIN'S decision to sack his Cabinet prompted cautious reaction by Western governments, who are concerned about the leadership of the world's largest country (in terms of territory), which possesses a large arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Germany made soothing noises. According to spokesman Otto Hauser, Chancellor Helmut Kohl considers Chernomyrdin a leader "the government knows well and respects. …

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