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Will a cornered Yeltsin lash out?

Impeachment debate to begin May 13. The Russian president's reaction

History has shown that Russian President Boris Yeltsin is an impulsive man who kicks out when cornered.

And history may repeat itself if impeachment hearings, due to begin May 13, don't proceed to his liking.

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Kremlin watchers are steeling themselves for what the unpredictable leader will do if the lower house of parliament, or Duma, initiates the process to remove him from office.

Speculation is rife that even if the impeachment effort fails, as is likely, the president may fire the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and thus spark a war with the Communist-controlled Duma.

Such uncertainty would send Russia into disastrous turmoil.

Mr. Primakov is widely seen as the only man who can win opposition support for unpopular laws to secure a $4.5 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) credit. And he is successfully keeping hawks at bay as Russia tries to mediate in NATO's Balkans war.

But eight years in power have shown Mr. Yeltsin responds aggressively to humiliation, with thoughts only for his own survival.

He sacked two governments last year when he felt threatened - the second time provoking Russia's financial collapse. He sent troops to quell a parliamentary revolt in 1993.

Now Moscow's rumor mills are churning out speculation that he may be planning another nasty surprise.

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"The impeachment proceeding is largely symbolic. But it is serious because it is not liked by the president," says Georgi Satarov, a former Yeltsin political adviser who now heads a Moscow think tank, Indem.

"And when he doesn't like things there can be a serious impact - like sacking the government or dissolving parliament. That would be extremely dangerous for the country," he says.

Beset by recurring medical problems, stumbling and often incoherent in his public appearances, Yeltsin has spent much of the past year in bed and paranoid about being removed from office before his term is up in June 2000.

Facing five charges

Yeltsin is charged with five impeachment counts: using force in 1993 against parliament; the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991; the collapse of the Russian military; "genocide" against the population for policies leading to poverty; and launching the disastrous 1994-96 war against separatist Chechnya.

Only the last charge may go through, analysts say. But impeachment is a long and complicated procedure that would be unlikely to remove Yeltsin before his term is up next year.

A long process

Even if the vote succeeds - a prospect many observers doubt - the process would be dragged out over months during which either the Constitutional Court or the upper house of parliament could throw out the decision.

But the Communists express confidence they will win the necessary 300 votes in the 450-seat Duma to get the proceedings going.

Looking to elections

They are buoyed by Yeltsin's meager 2 percent support in public opinion polls and corruption scandals that have implicated top aides. They want to publicize his shortcomings before parliamentary elections in December.

Moreover, the impeachment process is a way to guarantee the Duma's survival. As long as it is under way, Yeltsin cannot dissolve parliament.

Such a tactic could backfire, however. Speculation in political circles is growing that Yeltsin will fight back by firing Primakov, the man widely seen as responsible for restoring stability to the country when he came to power in September at the height of financial crisis.

Primakov, unlike Yeltsin, enjoys strong popularity among the grass roots and Communists. The prime minister has capably run the country while Yeltsin recovered from bouts of illness.

But the NATO bombings on Yugoslavia have jolted the president into more action - and action for Yeltsin is customarily coupled with attacks on perceived threats.

Warning to Primakov?

Recently, Kremlin aides have indicated that Yeltsin's fear of being upstaged by his high-profile lieutenant may have its limits.

"Certainly, no prime minister is indispensable," the deputy Kremlin chief of staff, Oleg Sysuyev, said ominously in a magazine interview last week.

"I think the president has a number of names of people who, when necessary, could replace anyone, including the prime minister," he said.

Russian newspapers, in the tradition of studying Kremlin intrigue, pointed to seating at a recent Cabinet meeting. Yeltsin ostentatiously placed Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin - newly named as first deputy prime minister - next to Primakov, as though to remind him how precarious everyone's positions were.

This uncertainty about the premier's fate is shared by ordinary Russians.

According to a poll by the Ekho Moskvy radio station, 64 percent of respondents believe Primakov will leave office soon.

Even if Yeltsin doesn't sack Primakov, he may try to provoke him to resign, say some analysts.

This would easily be done by firing the prime minister's two Communist deputies - Agriculture Minister Gennady Kulik and First Deputy Prime Minister Yury Maslyukov, who oversees economic policy.

Such a move would undermine Primakov, who has said in the past that he would step down if they were removed.

This would then provoke a revolt by Communists in the Duma, who would be unlikely to approve a replacement for Primakov and who would block any legislature pushed by Yeltsin.

Many analysts believe that if Primakov is sacked as a preemptive strike before the impeachment vote, parliament will surely pick up the two-thirds vote required to start the proceedings.

But if Yeltsin does nothing radical before May 13, more deputies may be likely to refrain from supporting impeachment.

They may fear how he will respond if they do, says Alexander Mekhanik, Director of the Moscow-based Contemporary Politics Institute.

"There is a danger that Yeltsin would do something impulsive. That is a bigger threat to stability than impeachment," he says. "I think some of them realize that."

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