For Russians used to Yeltsin whims, Cabinet firings seem typical stroke Life and joking goes on amid latest Kremlin 'crisis'


MOSCOW -- When Viktor S. Chernomyrdin told a news conference here yesterday that the firing of the entire Russian Cabinet was part of a natural process of renewal, people in other parliamentary democracies may have wondered what he was talking about.

But it was a vintage performance by the man who did the firing.

Boris N. Yeltsin has lived his life by the bold stroke, often taken with little counsel. Long periods of drift and inactivity have typically come to an abrupt end when Yeltsin has suddenly decided that a little dynamism is called for. He enjoys surprising people. He draws strength from commotion.

"Yeltsin has an enormous taste for power, and he likes to keep everyone around him off balance," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies.

What happened yesterday caught the world -- and the Russian Cabinet -- by surprise. Chernomyrdin, dismissed as prime minister, said he's been prepared for this day for the past five years, but nothing seems to have suggested to him that yesterday was going to be it.

In much of the world, people would wonder about a president who acted so unilaterally and unexpectedly, and without offering much of an explanation. Not here. People here know Yeltsin.

The Russian president appeared to have been acting capriciously and might, in fact, have been, but he is a man

whose sense of timing has rarely let him down.

Sometimes the crisis comes to Yeltsin and sometimes Yeltsin makes the crisis. In August 1991, Communist hard-liners attempted a coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and Yeltsin impulsively climbed atop a tank and rallied a nation to resistance. It was an act that none of his enemies had ever imagined -- and he rode it to the pinnacle of power in Russia.

That December, with political will drained from the Soviet system and the economy paralyzed by fear and indecision, Yeltsin met privately with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine and the three men quietly agreed that the Soviet Union would cease to exist. Just like that.

In March 1993, Yeltsin went on television one night, dismissed the parliament and declared a state of emergency. It didn't take. In September 1993, when, on the surface, things seemed to be as quiet as they have been this year, he suddenly dismissed parliament again. When some legislators refused to go, he brought out the tanks and shelled them into submission.

To that point, Yeltsin's bold declarations had tapped into genuine and deep public support. When he fought the Communist Party barons as a brash and brazen reformer in the 1980s, the public loved it. When he faced one showdown after another with a hostile parliament in 1992 and early 1993, he appealed time and again to his supporters and visibly gained resolve when they turned out in the streets for him.

But when the tanks began firing on the Russian White House, as the parliament building is known, the palpable link dissolved into doubts and cynicism.

That explains why there was no sense of crisis gripping Moscow yesterday -- as there might be in many countries where the government has just been shown the door. People made jokes. Life went on. Traffic was as bad as ever. It was all just goings-on inside the Kremlin.

For several years now, faces have come and gone and sometimes come back in the Yeltsin entourage. Anatoly B. Chubais, a deputy prime minister fired yesterday, has been through this once before. In 1996, Yeltsin professed loyalty to his longtime bodyguard and confidant, Alexander Korzhakov, up to the day he fired him. That summer, he abruptly hired a presidential rival, Alexander I. Lebed, to find a solution to the war in Chechnya. Lebed did so and unceremoniously lost his job.

There was a government shake-up in January and another in February.

"This dismissal was a traditional Yeltsin method to reinvigorate himself and to put himself into the center of the political scene," Lilia F. Shevtsova, a political commentator, said yesterday.

But trouble has been quietly brewing. The inability of the government to pay millions of workers on time portends a crisis that could come sooner rather than later. The worldwide drop in oil prices threatens to inflict considerable pain on the Russian economy. The State Duma, parliament's lower house, was heading toward a no-confidence vote on the Cabinet on April 10.

Yeltsin simply beat them to it.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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