Analysts Applaud Sackings

The firing of three top government officials Thursday was hailed by analysts as good news for reform efforts, with one prominent economist even dubbing the trio "the dark men of the Kremlin."

First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, an industrialist and technocrat, was ousted along with presidential bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and security service head Mikhail Barsukov in a Kremlin power struggle.

Anders Aslund, an economist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, described the three men as obstacles to true reform who did little or nothing to hinder the cycle of corruption that has overwhelmed much of the Russian economy.

"They are really standing for the worst side of the Yeltsin administration," said Aslund, a former top Western adviser to the government. "These are really the dark men of the Kremlin."

The government announced late Thursday that Soskovets would be replaced by Oleg Lobov, a long-time Yeltsin ally who briefly served as first deputy prime minister and economics minister in 1993. At the time he called for more state regulation and a go-slow approach to privatization.

Of the three men fired Thursday, Soskovets, 47, had the greatest public role in the economy. He stood firmly for the military-industrial complex and acted as a stalwart voice for government support of the sector.

Economists applauded his dismissal, noting that he resisted the long-held Western economic idea that tight monetary policy is the key to controlling inflation.

But most conceded that his overall influence on the economy was limited as he focused mainly on maintaining control in the heavy and nonferrous metals industries, where he got his start as a steelworker, and the search for tax breaks and domestic financing for those sectors.

"He's been completely preoccupied with the metallurgical industry and with struggles over the industry to expand his interest," Aslund said. "He has been shameful in that regard."

Appointed first deputy prime minister in April 1993, Soskovets was known for his belief that Russia had made a mistake in trying to copy Western market reform models. His role in the government, however, was viewed as that of a conduit between the Communists who swept to power in last December's parliamentary elections and President Boris Yeltsin's pro-reform camp.

"Yeltsin was concerned about [the Communists'] support, and Soskovets was the conductor or link between government circles and the industrial complex in terms of implementing policy," said Yaroslav Lisovolick of the Center for Economic Performance.

Soskovets' position as the government's point man in the crime-ridden metals industry damaged his credibility as a high-level official and placed him too close to illicit dealings, analysts said.

In particular, Aslund criticized his unwillingness to take a stand against the violence that has plagued the industry since reforms were attempted following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"The aluminum industry has been one of the most affected areas of high-level killings ... and Soskovets never raised his voice publicly about killings in an industry that he controls," said Aslund.

Aluminum industry officials were uncertain how their sector would be affected by Soskovets' sudden fall from grace.

"For Russian metals producers, this is a loss which could create uncertainty," said Vladimir Kalchenko, first deputy director of the Kontsern Aluminy products group, in remarks reported by Reuters.

Others, however, said the sector was stable enough to stand on its own without a close sympathizer in the Kremlin.

It was Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin who initiated the firing, Interfax quoted a Yeltsin spokesman as saying. Chernomyrdin charged that Soskovets had "been unable to fully exercise the command of his area of responsibility" and "made serious faults" in efforts to restructure industry and convert defense plants to commercial production.

With the departure of Soskovets and the security chiefs, analysts say Yeltsin may well be on his way to cleaning house throughout his government.

"This is a major part of a general trend," said Aslund. "Yeltsin is running his campaign on a democratic program and very liberal economic program ... the standard of a conservative party in Europe."