Pushing Russia to the brink of a new political crisis, President Boris N. Yeltsin fired popular Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov on Wednesday and named the nation's top police official, Sergei V. Stepashin, to head a new government.
Yeltsin, raising the stakes in his long-running battle with the Communist-dominated lower house of parliament, dismissed Primakov in an apparent bid to outmaneuver lawmakers as they decide this week whether to impeach the president.
Yeltsin told the nation that he dismissed Primakov because the prime minister had failed to revive Russia's economy since September, when he was appointed in a compromise between the president and the Duma, parliament's lower house.
"The prime minister's caution, his readiness to take on only those measures that get maximum approval and support, are now beginning to cause damage," the president said in a televised address. "We do not need a stabilization of poverty and economic slump. We need a serious breakthrough."
Despite Yeltsin's words, the firing of Primakov was widely perceived as a move by the president to eliminate his biggest rival and gain the upper hand over the Duma, which is set to begin debating today five articles of impeachment.
The nomination of Stepashin--a loyal Yeltsin backer who commands 200,000 troops and police as Russia's interior minister--creates a complex political situation: Stepashin has little support in parliament, but if deputies vote three times to reject his nomination, Yeltsin would be required under the constitution to dissolve the Duma.
Yeltsin, fighting to regain political control after months of illness, has in one stroke set the stage for a bizarre constitutional standoff in which the Duma could impeach the president while the president disbands the Duma.
"The dismissal of Primakov will contribute tremendously to the destabilization of the political situation in Russia," said Sergei M. Rogov, director of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow. "Apparently the period of relative stability which this society enjoyed for the last nine months is over. Right now, it seems that trouble is coming."
The political turmoil also comes at a time when Russia is playing a central role in attempting to mediate the war between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Yugoslavia.
Many months in the making, the impeachment drive against Yeltsin will come to a head in the Duma with debate over the five charges against him: helping disband the Soviet Union in 1991; improperly using force to dissolve parliament in 1993; starting the war in the separatist republic of Chechnya in 1994; destroying the Russian military through lack of funding; and adopting destructive economic and social policies that constitute genocide against the Russian people.
The Duma has scheduled three full days of debate, culminating in a vote Saturday. Duma leaders said earlier that only the charge linked to the Chechen war had a chance of passage, but the firing of Primakov may inspire more deputies to vote for impeachment.
Even if the Duma votes to impeach him, the constitution favors Yeltsin. It gives two high courts--both filled with Yeltsin's appointees--the chance to overturn the charges before they reach the final arbiter, the upper house of parliament, which tends to be less antagonistic toward Yeltsin than the Duma.
A constitutional crisis could develop if the Duma impeaches Yeltsin at the same that it refuses to confirm his nominee for prime minister. One provision of the constitution prohibits the president from dissolving the Duma if he has been impeached. But another clause requires him to disband the Duma if it fails to approve a prime minister after three attempts.
Yeltsin's quest to hang on to power despite the possible disruption to the country has brought criticism from all quarters. Burdened by continual health problems that have left him hospitalized or in recovery for nearly a third of his second term, he has become politically isolated and relies on a small group of advisors that includes his daughter, Tatiana.
"Mr. Yeltsin is the only trouble for Russia, the only destabilizing factor in Russian politics during the whole decade," said Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, who worked for Yeltsin's 1996 presidential campaign. "I don't think he can think rationally, but he has a great instinct for power."
The firing of Primakov marks the third time Yeltsin has dismissed a prime minister in the past 14 months. The ouster of Primakov touched off a storm of protest from Communists and other members of parliament who had supported him.
Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, who has spearheaded the impeachment drive, accused the president of firing Primakov out of jealousy over the prime minister's widespread backing.
"Only 2% support Yeltsin while support of Primakov is 60% and higher," Zyuganov said, citing a recent poll. "This is the main cause of the Primakov government's dismissal."
However, pro-market Yabloko faction leader Grigory A. Yavlinsky, who initially suggested Primakov for the post of prime minister, said Primakov's government had outlived its usefulness.
"His refusal to combat the corruption in the government of which we have spoken so much, his refusal to admit to the absence of a governmental economic program and a realistic program of action, all that was undoubtedly true," Yavlinsky said.
Much of the credit for Russia's brief period of stability belongs to Primakov, a former foreign minister who stepped in as prime minister to avert a constitutional crisis when the Duma refused to confirm Yeltsin's first choice, former Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.
Primakov took the job just after the previous government had defaulted on debt payments and devalued the ruble, driving foreign investors out of Russia and prompting a wave of bank defaults that cost many Russians their life savings.
Despite predictions of loomingeconomic chaos, Primakov adopted a course of modest change that calmed Russians' fears and restored credibility in the government. Forming a broad-based government that included Communists in key positions, he became the country's most popular politician, far outshining the president who appointed him.
While Primakov was unsuccessful in solving Russia's fundamental economic problems or obtaining the multibillion-dollar loans he sought from the International Monetary Fund, Russia's economy recently had begun to show small signs of recovery as inflation shrank and the ruble stopped falling.
Soon after appointing Primakov prime minister, Yeltsin suffered a series of debilitating illnesses that kept him out of action until late March, when he emerged from treatment for a bleeding ulcer with renewed vigor.
Increasingly reasserting himself in the nation's affairs, Yeltsin replaced many top officials who oversaw Russia's security agencies, including the heads of the Security Council and the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB.
On April 27, Yeltsin gave Stepashin, his interior minister, the additional post of first deputy prime minister, which put him in position to take over from Primakov when the time came. At public events in recent days, Yeltsin openly snubbed Primakov, and it was clear that the prime minister's days were numbered.
Yeltsin "is motivated by a tremendously powerful driving force: the instinct for power, the unquenchable desire to remain at the helm of a huge country," said Andrei A. Piontkovsky, director of the Independent Institute for Strategic Studies.
Stepashin will serve as acting prime minister until his nomination is taken up by the Duma, which quickly scheduled a vote for next Wednesday. Deputy Vladimir A. Ryzhkov, head of the Our Home Is Russia faction that normally backs Yeltsin, said Stepashin's nomination "will encounter major difficulties."
Despite Yeltsin's criticism of Primakov's handling of the economy, one immediate casualty of his decision to oust Primakov is likely to be a $4.5-billion loan package recently negotiated with the IMF. Legislation required by the IMF before it releases the loan was introduced in the Duma on Tuesday, but without Primakov's government to push for it, the bill is likely to languish.
Yeltsin "never cared about the economy, but he cares about fighting and keeping power," said Sergei A. Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow. "Mr. Yeltsin is a very good political fighter but a very bad president."
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How Impeachment Works
1. Deputies in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, file a motion to put the question of impeaching the president on the agenda. This motion needs to be signed by 150 of the Duma's 450 deputies.
2. The Duma votes by a simple majority to create a commission to formulate the impeachment charges.
3. The commission holds hearings, listens to witnesses and draws up the articles of impeachment.
4. The Duma votes separately on each article of impeachment, which needs a two-thirds vote to pass. Rules originally said the ballot should be secret, but in recent weeks the Communist Party changed the rules to make the vote a roll-call ballot. If any charge passes, the president is forbidden to dissolve the Duma until the impeachment process is completed.
5. The charges are sent to the Supreme Court, which must decide whether they are legal. There is no legislation that stipulates a mechanism or time frame for the Supreme Court to make its decision. In addition, at any stage the country's highest legal body--the Constitutional Court--can stop the proceedings by ruling that the articles are unconstitutional.
6. After approval by the Supreme Court, the charges are debated and voted on in parliament's upper house, the 178-member Federation Council. Each article needs two-thirds of the vote to pass.
7. If the Federation Council fails to vote within three months after the Duma ballot, charges are automatically voided.
The Articles of Impeachment Against
President Boris N. Yeltsin
Instigating the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Improperly using force against hard-line lawmakers in 1993, when troops stormed the Russian White House.
Launching the botched 1994-96 war in the separatist republic of Chechnya.
Ruining Russia's military.
Waging genocide against the people of Russia with economic policies that have impoverished the country.