MOSCOW -- Boris N. Yeltsin left the hospital in the weak winter light yesterday morning, and a motorcade bore him through steady snow to the Kremlin, where the diminished president lined up his closest aides and fired them. Having reminded the world he was still in charge, Yeltsin returned to the hospital.
During his three hours at the office, Yeltsin not only dismissed his chief of staff -- whom he reportedly regarded with fatherly affection -- but replaced him with an army general who is also the secretary of the Security Council. He appointed a former secret police general as deputy chief of staff.
Moscow politicians wasted no time in drawing uneasy conclusions at the sight of generals installed in the Kremlin. One deputy in the lower house of parliament, the Duma, described the appointments as a "soft military dictatorship." Television commentators said the Kremlin resembled military headquarters more than anything else.
"Yeltsin now is like a wounded boar," said the deputy, Alexander Vengerovsky, an independent member of the Duma. "He has to lie low to keep his post, and realizing that very few honest people are left around him, he has to surround himself with and rely on the military."
Yeltsin fired Valentin Yumashev, a former journalist who helped him write two books, and replaced him as chief of staff with Gen. Nikolai Bordyuzha, 49, former commander of the border guards and since September the head of the security council. Vladimir Makarov, who worked for the Soviet-era KGB and then at a government communications agency, was named deputy chief of staff.
The president's press secretary admitted, in effect, that Yeltsin felt weak and was trying to assert himself. He said that in combining the jobs of chief of staff and secretary of the Security Council, Yeltsin wanted to strengthen control over the "power" ministries -- the armed forces and police.
"The president said that this combination will make the power structures more manageable, which is one of the key tasks today," Dmitri Yakushkin, the press secretary, told reporters. "We are not talking about emergency measures, but the measures will be adequate."
Vengerovsky said that Yeltsin fired Yumashev and several other members of his administration because he wanted personnel accustomed to taking orders -- soldiers -- rather than aides used to political maneuvering.
"It's easier to handle a military officer, one who has taken an oath," he said. "Yeltsin wants a rear guard to protect him. Political intrigues will be replaced by a pragmatic approach -- the survival of Yeltsin in the Kremlin."
For more than two weeks, Yeltsin has been in the hospital with pneumonia, a serious illness for a 67-year-old man who has been sick or recuperating from illness most of this year. Yeltsin, who had open-heart surgery two years ago, has looked ill and feeble in public appearances this fall.
During this latest illness, the prevailing wisdom has judged him irrelevant. Speculation abounds about whether he can possibly stay in office until his term expires at the end of 2000. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has taken on many of the presidential duties.
While the president has been out of sight, serious dangers have confronted the nation. One of the country's most idealistic and highly regarded democrats, Galina Starovoitova, was murdered in her apartment building in St. Petersburg Nov. 20.
The head of a southern Russian republic raised the possibility of effectively seceding from the federation. Several former KGB officers went on television to say the agency was engaging in murder and extortion. Boris Berezovsky, one of the nation's financial oligarchs, accused the KGB of plotting to murder him.
In October, a Communist member of the Duma made threatening anti-Semitic remarks at a public rally, and his party refused to censure him. Television and radio stations have accused politicians of trying to take control of the media, under the guise of seizing their property for debt collections.
Last week, the Duma voted to resurrect the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB and synonymous with Soviet )) power and repression. The statue was toppled by pro-democracy pro- testors in 1991, and the mayor of Moscow says he has no intention of allowing its restoration.
And the economic crisis has hit so severely that for the last few days wide swaths of Kamchatka in the Far East have been without electricity or heat, and people have been forced to build campfires in the snow and cook their meals in the street.
No one apparently has even considered consulting Yeltsin.
If there's anything Yeltsin loathes, it is irrelevance. Time and again he has risen from a sickbed or political humiliation to proclaim his hold on power, and he did so again yesterday. Yeltsin was shown on television, lecturing his cowed aides before firing them. He moved deliberately, like an injured animal, but his eyes looked ready to fight to the death.
VTC His press secretary said Yeltsin told them that they had not been doing enough to curb extremism, crime and separatism.
"The President's conclusion was that all this is subverting the credibility of the office of the President and the authorities
generally," Yakushkin said, "and in the present difficult economic situation this is absolutely inadmissible." Alexander Shokhin, head of the centrist Our Home Is Russia faction,said Yeltsin wanted to show who was boss.
"He's like a lion who licked his wounds and now roared at those who thought he was already out of the game," he said.
Yakushkin said the president found the exercise invigorating.
"A few words about Boris Nikolayevich's condition," he said. "He himself commented on that by the end of the meeting. He said: 'You see how energetic I am, hardly any explanations are necessary.' "
It was a characteristic move. Last spring, Yeltsin got out of his sickbed, turned up at the Kremlin and fired the government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. That touched off months of political instability that exacerbated the deteriorating economic situation and led to total breakdown.
As usual, Russians were philosophical rather than panicked by the events of the day. Their country is progressing, they say.
Four hundred years ago, Ivan the Terrible would return to Moscow after an absence, feeling weak, threatened by intrigue, and re-establish his authority by dispatching his subordinates.
He would chop off their heads, or cut them to pieces, or poison them.
Today, they are allowed to live; some have even been restored to positions of power after subsequent purges.
Pub Date: 12/08/98