MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin threw Russia into political chaos yet again yesterday, dismissing popular Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov and presenting lawmakers with a do-or-die challenge on the eve of impeachment proceedings.
A few hours later, Yeltsin warned that Russia may pull out as as mediator in the Kosovo crisis.
The sudden actions opened the way for a constitutional crisis, unraveled the stability that Primakov had achieved, cast doubt on international help for Russia's economy and threatened to upset the Balkans peace process.
Although the president asserted that he fired Primakov because of his failure to improve the economy, Yeltsin nominated as a replacement Interior Minister Sergei V. Stepashin, the nation's top policeman who knows little about economics and everything about intense personal loyalty.
The warning to NATO was seen as an answer to hard-line foes in parliament who accuse Yeltsin of bowing to the Western alliance instead of arming Yugoslavia, a fellow Slavic country.
Yeltsin-watchers said the president's actions could be interpreted only as the desperate acts of a waning politician who is trying to hold on to power to the very end, no matter what the cost to the country.
"He was driven not by considerations of the future of the country," said Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Center for Strategic Studies here, "but only by considerations for his own security and political legacy."
In firing his 69-year-old prime minister, Yeltsin, 68, has created a crisis in a period of relative stability. He did so as the government was desperately striving for unanimity so it could persuade the International Monetary Fund to rescue a wretched economy and at a time when war in Yugoslavia has unsettled a jittery and resentful population.
Primakov is the third prime minister to be sacked by Yeltsin in 14 months. Analysts said Primakov's dismissal, long rumored, was partly out of jealousy. His approval rating in polls has topped 60 percent, compared with single digits for Yeltsin.
Added to that were articles of impeachment, which have been in parliament for months as Yeltsin's hard-line foes delayed debate.
"He is struggling for his legacy," said Sergei Kolmakov, a political observer with the Polity Foundation. "What he sees in Primakov and impeachment are attacks on that legacy, the total rejection of what he sees as his achievements and good deeds for the country."
In firing Primakov, who had been in office eight months, Yeltsin was also flinging a risky challenge at the Communist-led State Duma, the lower house of parliament that is scheduled to take up the impeachment charges today.
There is scant support in the Duma for Stepashin, 47, and under the Russian constitution, the president can dissolve the Duma and set new elections if the lower house rejects his nominee for prime minister three times.
Here Yeltsin was taking a huge risk. The constitution also forbids the president from dissolving the Duma if the lower house has formally begun the impeachment process. This provision could serve as a motivation for Duma deputies to muster the 300 votes for impeachment as quickly as possible, rather than take up Stepashin's nomination.
Yeltsin had nearly reached the point of dissolving parliament last fall, when the Duma twice rejected the nomination of Viktor S. Chernomyrdin as prime minister. But just before the third vote, Primakov, a former Soviet bureaucrat then serving as foreign minister, emerged as the only candidate that nearly everyone could agree on.
Normally calm politicians described the situation in deeply troubled voices.
Yeltsin had succeeded in turning everyone against him by dispatching Primakov, who had managed to maintain peace and keep inflation relatively low after last summer's collapse of the economy prompted widespread predictions of unrest and starvation, the politicians said.
"Now all factions will insist on impeachment," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, who heads the centrist Our Home is Russia faction. "Now we have two sides, as we did in 1993 and as we did in 1991. And each side is obstinate."
In 1993, a standoff between Yeltsin and the parliament resulted in the president sending tanks to shell the legislature. And 1991 was the year of the coup, when tanks rumbled through the streets of Moscow, setting off the events that resulted in the Soviet Union falling apart.
"I think President Yeltsin made a big mistake," said Gennady Selyeznov, the speaker of the Duma, "maybe the biggest mistake he's ever made."
Even Grigory A. Yavlinsky, the liberal politician who has criticized Primakov for allowing the economy to stagnate, said Yeltsin had threatened the nation's stability.
"I do not have the impression that this decision has been prompted by the desire to strengthen order and stability in the country," he told reporters yesterday.
Other politicians said Yeltsin had set off an unpredictable chain of events.
"Forces that are ready to stage another coup d'etat are actively at work in the country," said Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communist leader. "They cynically hope that Russia will begin to fall apart in this situation of chaos."
Though Yeltsin vowed to continue Russia's mediation in the Yugoslav war, it seemed likely that Moscow's political crisis could only distract negotiators.
"Frequent changes of the government cannot be positive," said Chernomyrdin, who is Yeltsin's envoy in the Yugoslav crisis. "This creates certain difficulties for us."
Yeltsin delivered the news to the nation in a 10-minute televised speech, in which he growled like a bear that had just emerged from hibernation. He said he was dismissing Primakov because of his inability to deal with Russia's financial problems.
"The prime minister's caution, his readiness to take only those measures that get maximum approval and support are now beginning to cause damage," Yeltsin said. "You see, on the eve of elections the number of those who are ready to support unpopular, tough decisions in the economy is few. We do not need a stabilization of poverty and economic slump. We need a serious breakthrough."
Having appointed Primakov for his ability to compromise, Yeltsin now sees that skill as a liability.
"The time of soothing talk is over," Yeltsin said. "The turn of vigorous action has long come."
The president looked heavier, wearing recently acquired glasses. He frequently grimaced and slurred his words at times.
"I think he looks very close to another stroke," Kolmakov said.
Selyeznov, the Communist who is the Duma's speaker, said Yeltsin had called him yesterday and said he was nominating Nikolai Aksenenko, the little-known railways minister, as prime minister. Shortly thereafter, Selyeznov said, Yeltsin called and told him Stepashin was nominated as prime minister, with Aksenenko as first deputy prime minister, presumably in charge of the economy.
"I believe he does not remember what he had said just 15 minutes ago," Zyuganov told reporters. Some politicians were blaming the Duma -- and especially the Communists and their sympathizers -- for enraging Yeltsin by insisting on opening impeachment proceedings. Until yesterday they apparently did not have the votes to impeach him. Even if they did, the process of removing Yeltsin would take so long that it's doubtful it could be accomplished before his presidential term ends next year.
"We warned many times during the last weeks and months that this crisis was approaching," Ryzhkov said in a television interview yesterday. "We constantly told the initiators of impeachment that they had to stop. We constantly told them that they were provoking the president."
There was little public reaction to the upheaval yesterday. In Moscow, people placidly walked through a heavy snow, perhaps more preoccupied with warmth than politics. The city turned off the heat May 1, and most apartments have been bone-chillingly cold ever since.
Piontkovsky predicted a similar reaction nationwide in the days to come.
"Complete cynicism and indifference," he said.
Pub Date: 5/13/99