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Upstaged in Crisis, Yeltsin Gets Catcall For Failing to Lead

Russia eyes prime minister who kept his cool

WIDELY castigated for his glaring absence during Russia's worst hostage crisis, President Boris Yeltsin is expected to engage in serious damage control this week.

His subordinate, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, emerged as a political star after he negotiated with Chechen guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev on national TV for the release of roughly 1,000 people, whom rebel Chechens took hostage June 14 in the southern Russian city of Budennovsk.

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Mr. Yeltsin, meanwhile, watched a circus performance in Halifax, Canada, during the June 14-17 Group of Seven summit.

Despite Mr. Chernomyrdin's success, the entire tragedy has been interpreted here as a huge humiliation for Russia - and the president in particular.

While observers say Yeltsin is still largely in control, his authority has been seriously undermined by his mishandling of the hostage crisis. It is unclear to what extent he will be able to retain his government's loyalty. On June 20, the influential Communist Party launched a campaign to impeach Yeltsin, which likely won't succeed but shows the extent of his unpopularity.

Chernomyrdin still has to fend off a parliamentary vote of no-confidence June 21. But the vote, called before his negotiations with Mr. Basayev began, is presumed to be a formality he is certain to survive. His main threat, diplomats and analysts say, could come from Yeltsin, who will most likely try to take at least partial credit for the hostages' release.

The crisis eased June 18 when Chernomyrdin granted the rebels safe passage home in return for the hostages' freedom, and peace talks to end the six-month war in Chechnya are taking place in Grozny, the capital. But no concrete results are expected.

"The unusual step of negotiating with terrorists on national TV was obviously intended to give Chernomyrdin's image a little boost. But now Yeltsin's people are trying to make it look like Yeltsin was involved all along," says one Western diplomat here.

"Yeltsin's position is not great anyway," he adds. "This certainly doesn't help."

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On June 20, the two men met for what the Russian Interfax news agency called a "regular meeting." They discussed the hostage crisis as well as "staffing matters," which means some government reshuffling could occur in the wake of the much-criticized Budennovsk operation.

"Yeltsin is not out of it totally. I think he will do something fairly dramatic next week, such as removing one of his ministers. At least some sort of decisive act on his part that would engage him back into the political process," says Michael McFaul at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Moscow.

"If he does not do that, he looks like a lame-duck president not really in charge, ... not around at the right moment, and then the gravity would move away from the White House [Russian parliament] to the Kremlin about who is really in charge of Russia."

The most likely scapegoat is Interior Minister Viktor Yerin, who will probably take the flak for letting the rebels into Budennovsk, as well as his troops' bungled storming of the hospital to free the hostages. At least 30 people were killed in the poorly-conceived attack, which the Chechens deflected.

Yeltsin said in Halifax that before he left for Canada, he had authorized Mr. Yerin to use force against the hostage-takers. But when Yeltsin returned to Russia early June 18, he made no mention of the storming. He only issued a brief statement expressing outrage at the Chechen's "terrorist" act.

Some attributed his silence to his either being too drunk, too tired, or too ill after a transatlantic flight to perform in public. "When he comes after a long plane ride, he is not in the best condition to perform, whether for health or drinking," says Mr. McFaul.

Yeltsin's silence, however, was so conspicuous that his chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, issued a statement assuring the Russian people that their leader was being consulted on every aspect of the crisis.

"Yeltsin thinks he is above politics," says McFaul. "People call him a czar and not a president, and in that sense public relations are not important to him."

While Russian political memories are notoriously short, Yeltsin's antics could be a boon to Chernomyrdin, whose new parliamentary bloc, "Our Home Is Russia," could make him a contender for the 1996 presidential elections. Neither has yet declared any intention to run.

"All the polls say that Chernomyrdin's reputation has improved, and that a lot of opposition against him ... has disappeared," says Emil Pain, a political adviser to Yeltsin. "But ... there is a comparison of the two leaders taking place, which is always bad," he warns. "I think that we still don't know what the political consequences of [the hostage] situation will be."

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