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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Speculation Swirls That Premier Set To Be Fired

In the last few days, rumors have been flying around Moscow over the future of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who is said by several leading commentators and politicians to have fallen out of favor with President Boris Yeltsin and may possibly be on his way out.

On Sunday's "Itogi" television program, Mikhail Berger, an analyst with the daily Izvestia, argued that Chernomyrdin's job was on the line. Tuesday's Izvestia leads with the same story, under a banner headline: "Prime Minister Chernomyrdin's Possible Resignation Puts Future of President Yeltsin Under Threat."

In a Monday morning Radio Liberty broadcast, Vladimir Gurevich, deputy editor of the weekly The Moscow News, said influential forces in Yeltsin's entourage were pushing for the prime minister's resignation. Last week, Alexander Bekker wrote in a column in the daily Segodnya that Chernomyrdin might soon be replaced by Yury Skokov, leader of the Congress of Russian Communities, the CRC.

And politicians seem to have taken the lead from the press. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov told a press conference last Thursday that he saw relations between Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin worsening because Yeltsin's als of this kind," Interfax quoted Rogozin as saying in a statement that appeared completely out of context.

The evidence of the rift between Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin offered by politicians and commentators is plentiful but purely circumstantial.

Berger, Gurevich and Bekker all pointed out that Yeltsin was twice scheduled to meet with Chernomyrdin during his prolonged vacation in Sochi, but neither of the meetings, announced in advance by the presidential press service, took place.

Meanwhile, Yeltsin did meet with other members of the Cabinet, including First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets.

Chernomyrdin's press secretary, Viktor Konnov, said Monday that the prime minister had gone to the airport to meet Yeltsin as the president returned from the Black Sea resort of Sochi where he had been vacationing. He refused to comment on the speculation surrounding the premier.

However, analysts said the canceled meetings were not the only evidence that Chernomyrdin had lost standing.

Bekker noted in his column that Yeltsin at his recent press conference said Chernomyrdin's electoral bloc, Our Home Is Russia, would not win more than 12 percent of the vote in December's parliamentary election and that at the same press conference the president criticized the government's tight monetary policy, saying it was hurting ordinary people.

Gurevich said in his Radio Liberty interview that several recent economic decrees had come into effect after Soskovets signed them, while in previous practice such decrees required Chernomyrdin's signature, and that Yeltsin has reportedly asked Chernomyrdin to go on leave to run the Our Home election campaign. The law requires that a candidate for a State Duma seat must take leave of absence from his job.

"Even these facts that are common knowledge are enough to suppose that Chernomyrdin is on his way out," Gurevich told The Moscow Times. "But that does not mean he will go immediately; if he does go on leave, we will know what decision Yeltsin has taken when Chernomyrdin's temporary replacement is announced. If it's Soskovets, that is bad news for Chernomyrdin. If it's [First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly] Chubais, that means Chernomyrdin's firing has been canceled or postponed."

Last year, the radio station Ekho Moskvy reported it had obtained a copy of a draft Yeltsin decree firing Chernomyrdin while he was on vacation in Sochi. Press reports linked Soskovets to the attempt to oust the prime minister. However, the decree never materialized and Chernomyrdin kept his job.

All the analysts referred to "people in Yeltsin's inner circle" or "people who see Yeltsin every day" who are trying to persuade the president to dump the prime minister as unpopular and go instead for an alliance with the increasingly popular CRC, which has been gaining points due to the charismatic leadership of former general Alexander Lebed and Skokov's valuable ties in politics and business.

Skokov, an advocate of strong state control over the economy, is a traditional bogeyman for the liberal Russian press and a central character of numerous anonymous "analytical reports" on possible coups that are circulated around Moscow's newspaper offices in the hope that someone will print them.

Like many other party leaders, he has announced that his party is ready to form a new government if it gets a large percentage of the vote in December. But, according to skeptics, that does not provide enough of a basis for rumors of Chernomyrdin's impending political demise.

"This is really just speculation, no reason to start oh-ing and ah-ing," said Vladimir Kulistikov, who interviewed Gurevich on the air. "This is not a ready-made sensation."

"I can only guess," Berger said when asked who on Yeltsin's staff, in his opinion, was pitting the president against Chernomyrdin.

The commentators' arguments could be dismissed as Kremlinology-style guesswork -- but some renowned journalists are reluctant to do so.

"There's no smoke without fire," "Itogi" host Yevgeny Kiselyov said, commenting on Berger's presentation.

But whether or not Chernomyrdin's job is really on the line, it is clear that the reports are prompted by a real rift between the president and the prime minister.

"Yeltsin has been sick to death of Chernomyrdin ever since the Budyonnovsk hostage crisis," said one political expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity. This was a reference to the Chechen rebels' assault on a south Russian city in June, during which Chernomyrdin negotiated the release of more than 1,000 hostages.

"Yeltsin realizes that throughout the Chechen war, he has been up to his ears in shit and Chernomyrdin has been the knight in shining armor."