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For weary Russians, a new crisis

A day after Yeltsin dumps his popular premier, impeachment debate is

Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov yesterday, in an action that is expected to revive economic turmoil and bring about a constitutional crisis.

Mr. Yeltsin was clearly trying to assert himself as a man in control by throwing down the gauntlet to the parliament, whose lower house, the State Duma, is due to begin debating five impeachment charges against him today.

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But by dismissing the man seen as the leading figure of stability in the country, Yeltsin has triggered a chain of events that could put Russia at risk.

Observers now expect a fresh financial crisis that will set back free-market reforms and a breakdown in cooperation between the executive branch and the Duma. This would result in holding up crucial laws needed to secure $4.5 billion in foreign credits.

The exit of Mr. Primakov may also erase the confidence he restored since he took the job in September amid a financial crash.

In addition, the president has provoked the Communist opposition by naming as acting premier Sergei Stepashin, the interior minister who commands more than 1 million police and thousands more troops.

Further afield, the lack of proper governance may weaken Russia's role as mediator in the NATO war with Yugoslavia.

"Yeltsin has manufactured a real tragedy for Russia - again," says Vladimir Andreyenkov, director of the Comparative Social Research Center, a think tank based in Moscow. "There had been stabilization under Primakov. Now governing will be frozen for a couple months. I can see only negative repercussions."

Such an impetuous move was entirely in character for Yeltsin, who attacks when he feels threatened. This is the third time since March 1998 that he has fired a prime minister, with little regard for the implications. In 1993 he went to the extreme of sending tanks to put down a parliamentary revolt - one of the five impeachment charges against him.

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The catalyst this time was the looming impeachment debate. The procedure, even if it wins the necessary votes, is unlikely to receive needed support from either the upper house of parliament or the constitutional and supreme courts. But just the symbolic move to unseat him before his term expires in June 2000 prompted Yeltsin to fight back.

Primakov was the victim of the president's envy. The prime minister, not the president, was widely credited with running the country. Primakov was popular with the Communists, who control the Duma, and with ordinary Russians.

In contrast, Yeltsin's moral authority has eroded since he became Russia's first leader after the Soviet collapse in 1991. He has spent most of the past 16 months recuperating from recurring illness, and his public-opinion ratings have fallen to single digits. His Western-style reforms have failed to deliver prosperity and a high-level corruption probe of his aides is under way.

But ditching Primakov will backfire on Yeltsin, analysts say. In revenge, the Duma is now more likely to approve at least one of the impeachment charges: launching the 1994-96 war against separatists in Chechnya.

Initiating the impeachment procedure would improve the prospect of the Duma's immediate survival, since it is unlikely to approve any candidate Yeltsin proposes for new premier. Under the Constitution, Yeltsin can dissolve the Duma if his nominee is rejected three times - but not once the impeachment process is under way. Whatever happens, the prospect of either the president facing impeachment, the country drifting without a working Cabinet or with a dissolved parliament, is unsettling at a time when parliamentary and presidential elections are due within 13 months.

There is no doubt that foreign investors, who were cautiously re-testing the Russian market after months of uncertainty, will be frightened off again. And the deal that Primakov and his team so carefully negotiated with the International Monetary Fund to resume loans may come to naught.

"This means crisis, crisis, crisis," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of the Panorama research center in Moscow. "A sort of mechanism of political instability has been switched on. And the economy reacts to that."

THERE may be wider repercussions as well for Russia's foreign policy, and particularly Moscow's role as mediator in the Balkan conflict. Political infighting at home saps attention needed for the diplomacy.

Yeltsin appeared to throw a wrench in the works yesterday when he announced that Russia's patience was running out on mediating, saying it was tired of being a "technical courier in the Yugoslav crisis, merely conveying proposals from one country to another."

The one consolation is that Yeltsin is unlikely to use force, as he did in the 1993 parliamentary revolt. Analysts believe that even if Mr. Stepashin orders police against the Duma, security forces will do their best to remain neutral. "This time if the orders are unconstitutional they won't be fulfilled ... because everyone knows Yeltsin's days are numbered," says Mr. Pribylovsky.

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