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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rumors Fly as Yeltsin Hosts Chernomyrdin

President Boris Yeltsin had Viktor Chernomyrdin and his wife over for dinner, an unusual get-together that had Moscow buzzing with speculation Wednesday that the former prime minister could return to the government.

Interfax quoted a source in Chernomyrdin's entourage as saying that he may take up a senior, but informal, position with sweeping powers.

Chernomyrdin, speaking to reporters in the State Duma on Wednesday, downplayed the significance of the "informal meeting" Tuesday evening at a presidential residence outside Moscow. He ruled out a return to the government.

The encounter came on the heels of a Kremlin meeting Tuesday between Yeltsin and party leaders in the opposition-dominated State Duma, parliament's lower house. Over tea and cookies, Yeltsin reminded the legislators that they "are part of one team."

He wants Duma deputies' support for a package of austerity measures aimed at rescuing Russia from its financial crisis.

In turning to his long-time prime minister, the president may be hoping to exploit Chernomyrdin's intimate relationship with Gazprom, as the government battles the Russian natural gas monopoly for unpaid taxes desperately needed to fill the state coffers.

Chernomyrdin was vague about his discussions with Yeltsin, saying only that he would actively participate in political life both from within and beyond the framework of his Our Home Is Russia Party, Itar-Tass reported. He urged its Duma faction to back the government's stabilization program.

Yeltsin called for Chernomyrdin, a loyal deputy until he was fired as prime minister March 23, at a time when he is under increasing pressure from the so-called oligarchs.

"Yeltsin is trying to broaden his political base and emerge from political isolation," said Sergei Markov of the Center for Political Studies. "He urgently needs political allies."

The president also has been faced with disloyalty in the Kremlin.

The president fired Sergei Shakhrai, his envoy to the Constitutional Court, last week after he pledged to support Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov in the 2000 presidential elections.

Only days later, Igor Shabdurasulov, Yeltsin's recently appointed deputy chief of staff, angered the Kremlin when he stated in an interview that Yeltsin was too tired "both physically and psychologically to continue to run the country efficiently."

Dmitry Ayatskov, the popular governor of the Saratov region, also appeared to be severing ties with Yeltsin when he announced recently he would run for president.

Yeltsin is also trying to keep in with big business, which doesn't find Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko a palatable alternative to Chernomyrdin because he is seen as too independent, Markov said.

His recent crackdown on Gazprom alarmed the oligarchs and gave rise to what Markov called "an unprecedented attack on the president in the mass media."

Many of the oligarchs have extensive Russian media interests.

As the former chief of Gazprom, Chernomyrdin could act as a useful bridge between the government and the company in the battle over unpaid taxes.

On Wednesday, Gazprom issued its first statement since the government launched its campaign against the natural gas giant on July 2.

"Gazprom welcomes and supports the efforts of President Yeltsin and Sergei Kiriyenko to reform and modernize the Russian economy and improve the condition of Russian state finances," Reuters cited the statement as saying.

Chernomyrdin and Ayatskov are the only candidates to publicly announce their intentions to run for president. In the absence of a more acceptable candidate, it is possible that the wealthy oligarchs may choose to back Chernomyrdin, said Yevgeny Volk, director of the Heritage Foundation.

"Lebed and Luzhkov are the only other two possibilities at this stage, but they are too independent," Volk said. "They are very unlikely to cooperate with the oligarchs, and Yeltsin knows this."

Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst at INDEM think tank, suggested a more sinister motive behind Tuesday's meeting.

"Viktor Stepanovich can't help him, but he certainly could harm him if he was so inclined," he said. "He could provide some marvelously compromising material -- much more damaging than [former bodyguard Alexander] Korzhakov, or [his deputy Valery] Streletsky."