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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ministers Warned Not to Fail

This Time

President Boris Yeltsin assured Russians on Thursday that the country is poised for economic growth in 1998, but he leaned hard on his top ministers not to waste the opportunity by repeating past mistakes.

"This is not the first time I am setting these tasks," Yeltsin said in his annual state-of-the-nation address. "I will no longer repeat this. If the government is not capable of resolving these strategic tasks, we will have a new government.

"We now have the right to say that the conditions for recovery have been created," he said.

In a relatively straightforward address that offered no sweeping changes, he did make one unanticipated announcement -- the government would ask parliament to amend the overdue 1998 budget, which is scheduled to be taken up on a fourth and final reading Wednesday in the State Duma, parliament's lower house. Parliamentary leaders disagreed over whether the late request would further delay the budget.

Overall, Yeltsin largely restated themes from last year's address as this year's unfinished business: passing tax reform laws, crafting credible budgets, paying government workers, fighting corruption.

He added a new twist by linking a minister's name to each of the most important tasks.

"We have agreed that Viktor Stepanovich is personally responsible for the status of the payment of wages," he said, referring to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

He handed First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais the thankless task of solving the nonpayments problem -- the chronic inability of enterprises and government to pay their bills to one another -- with a hint of a threat.

"This is an extremely concrete task, even though a very complex one. But, Anatoly Borisovich, it is necessary to cope with it," Yeltsin said, also referring to Chubais by his first name and patronymic.

Chubais, weakened by a scandal over excessive book royalties from a politically connected bank, has seen his influence fall and is frequently mentioned as a potential scapegoat.

First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and Deputy Prime Minister Yakov Urinson also were mentioned by name, receiving the assignments of housing ex-servicemen and forming industrial policy, respectively. The technique of assigning responsibility to individuals was first used Jan. 26 when the government's 12-point economic plan had names of the potentially blameworthy attached to each item.

But on the whole Yeltsin's address promised no sharp turns or immediate personnel changes. Analysts say Yeltsin appears to have resolved a period of Cabinet infighting by retaining Chubais and Nemtsov but reducing their influence in favor of Chernomyrdin, who favors a slower pace for reform.

Yeltsin looked strong and spoke steadily and clearly during the half-hour address, which is an annual chance for Kremlin-watchers to scrutinize him for signs of declining health.

The emphasis on continuity was a sharp contrast from the 1997 address, which Yeltsin used to make a dramatic return to the political fray after eight months of inaction due to heart trouble and subsequent pneumonia. He berated his government for inaction and heralded a new push on stalled economic reforms headed by Chubais and Nemtsov, who were brought into the Cabinet days later.

This year's address was even more heavily oriented toward economics than last year's speech, which marked a shift from emphasis on warding off a communist resurgence.

Now, Yeltsin said, political conflict between the government and the communist opposition that dominates the Duma had been resolved, clearing the way for economic growth.

"The political basis for it has been created," he said. "Russia is not a field of battle. Its constitution dictates only one way of achieving success : accord and cooperation. Now we should make that the main rule of the common work of all the branches of the government and the main political forces in Russia."

He stroked the powerful regional leaders, praising three by name for, as he claimed, fostering the development of strong nongovernmental organizations: Dmitry Ayatskov of the Saratov region, Mikhail Prusak of the Novgorod region and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

He emphasized continuity in foreign policy as well, urging ratification by Russia's parliament of the stalled START II arms reduction treaty and a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iraq's refusal to allow full access for UN weapons inspectors.

The speech was enlivened at one point by heckling over Iraq from ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, just back from Baghdad, where he went in support of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Reaction to Yeltin's speech was mixed, depending on the political sympathies of the observer. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called it "the grayest, emptiest, least interesting speech I have heard of all these addresses."

Yeltsin, he said, should have admitted failure and asked the assembled parliamentarians to help him find a way out of the situation. "He assembled the entire leadership of the country and couldn't even discuss the crisis situation," Zyuganov said.Deputy Duma Speaker Alexander Shokhin, a member of the pro-government Our Home Is Russia group, said Yeltsin's emphasis on the individual responsibility of ministers represented a "new technology" of governing by accountability.

"Today, the president proposed an open and public system of assessing the government's activity," Shokhin said.

Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads the liberal Yabloko opposition group in the Duma, said in a statement that the address "shows that hardly anything has changed for the better in the life of the country."

"The annual address has taken on the characteristics of a ceremonial act that doesn't reflect the real situation," he said.