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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PremierOn Ropes In Cabinet Shake-Up

The Kremlin stepped in Tuesday to deflect widespread speculation that President Boris Yeltsin is preparing to ditch his long-serving prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Speculation over the prime minister's fate started Monday as soon as Yeltsin was shown on television reprimanding Chernomyrdin over his government's failure to get public sector wages and benefits paid on time.

The influential daily Izvestia, quoting an unnamed source close to Chernomyrdin, writes in its Wednesday edition that Yeltsin has already made the decision to dismiss his prime minister.

But the presidential press secretary, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said Tuesday morning that when the two men met Monday "there was no mention of the Russian prime minister's dismissal." Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin confined themselves to discussing "the situation in the social sphere," Interfax quoted the spokesman as saying.

Moscow's political circles have predicted an imminent end to Chernomyrdin's career several times. In October 1994, and again in June 1996, the prime minister's decision to leave Moscow for vacation was hailed as a prelude to his departure from office.

But the 59-year old prime minister confounded expectations on each occasion and is now one of the longest serving members of the cabinet. Yeltsin appointed Chernomyrdin to the job in December 1992, after opposition in the former Supreme Soviet forced the president to sacrifice Yegor Gaidar, the acting prime minister.

Izvestia, citing what it called a "highly informed source in Chernomyrdin's immediate circle," wrote that the prime minister will be out of a job by early next month -- and will most likely be replaced by Yeltsin's current chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais.

"The political decision about Chernomyrdin's departure from office is

already taken," the daily quoted its source as saying in a front-page article. "The only thing with which the president is concerned is when and how to do it."

The source added that a presidential decree dismissing Chernomyrdin and appointing Chubais as acting prime minister has been on Yeltsin's desk since the beginning of February. But State Duma allegations that Chubais committed tax violations gave Chernomyrdin a stay of execution.

Izvestia's source predicted that the firing would come soon after Yeltsin's annual address to parliament -- which is scheduled for March 6 -- and added that the premier hoped to remain in his post until the fall.The 10-day deadline Yeltsin gave for Chernomyrdin to come to grips with the non-payments crisis expires on March 5.

Apparently smarting from the admonishment dished out by Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin pledged Tuesday that heads will roll in the cabinet.

"We are preparing [personnel changes]. These will not be cosmetic changes. We are talking about problems that need to be solved, about the deepening of economic reforms," the premier said.

"Economic reforms are not halted, and there cannot be any question of that," Chernomyrdin told Itar-Tass. "The last few years have not passed without leaving their mark. They have shown that there are people who know how to carry through the reform process and want to do it."

The government will take all measures necessary to pay off its debts, and has already paid 3.8 trillion rubles ($671 million) into the Pension Fund, Chernomyrdin told reporters.

Analysts interviewed Tuesday were not ruling out the prime minister's dismissal, but they were wary of reading too much into Yeltsin's chiding.

"Anything can happen in this life," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Yeltsin campaign pollster and president of the Fond Politika think tank.

Andrei Piontkovsky, of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Moscow, noted that the president is very sensitive to the rise of politicians around him. "This is a typical Yeltsin public relations stunt," he said. "His first concern is his own image."

If the tough talk does lead to sackings, analysts believe they will likely be limited to middle-ranking ministers linked most closely to the payments crisis.

Considered the most likely targets are the Minister of Labor and Social Development, Gennady Melikyan, and the head of the Pension Fund, Vasily Barchuk. But the clean-out could reach as far as first deputy prime ministers Viktor Ilyushin and Vladimir Potanin, said Viktor Vereschagin of the Expert Institute.

Barchuk found himself at the center of a furious row earlier this month when, at a rare press conference, he said that people who continue to work after retirement would lose pension pay. A week later Yeltsin reprimanded the fund chief on national television, denying any plans to cut pensions.

There are no clear answers as to who will fill any vacated cabinet seats.

Representatives of the Communist opposition and market reformers, such as Gaidar, have been touted as candidates.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov risks alienating his electorate by throwing his lot in with the government, but such a move cannot be ruled out, said Vereschagin."No one could believe that the opposition agreed to let Tuleyev join the government, but nevertheless it happened," said Vereschagin, referring to Communist Duma deputy Aman Tuleyev, who was appointed last year as minister for CIS affairs.

Meanwhile, Izvestia reported in its Wednesday edition that Gaidar had already declined an offer for Potanin's post as the first-deputy prime minister responsible for economic oversight.