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Controversial Moscow Party Chief Ousted

November 12, 1987|ROBERT SCHEER | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Boris N. Yeltsin, the popular and outspoken Communist Party leader of Moscow, has been ousted from his post, stirring speculation about the effect of the move on Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's program of reconstruction and openness.

The Moscow party removed Yeltsin for "major shortcomings in his leadership" of the capital, the official Soviet news agency Tass announced Wednesday night. He will be replaced by Lev N. Zaikov, a member of the ruling Politburo and a Gorbachev ally, the agency said.

Ever since Yeltsin offered to resign during a stormy meeting of the Soviet party's Central Committee on Oct. 21, his possible departure had been the subject of endless gossip and theorizing here as the party hierarchy pondered whether to accept the resignation.

One informed Central Committee member close to Gorbachev told The Times in an interview that the leadership finally decided to oust Yeltsin because, during the October meeting, the party boss directed an "irrational outburst" of criticism against the slow pace of social change in general and Politburo member Yegor K. Ligachev in particular. But the decision, he said, was complicated by Yeltsin's prominent identification with Gorbachev's reform program.

Yeltsin, 56, a populist in style who shunned the perquisites of his predecessors by riding the Moscow subway and meeting informally with citizen's groups, had been viewed by many here as a champion of the new policy of glasnost, or openness. He had earned the admiration of many reformers here for his unpretentious, even maverick, style and a tendency for direct public criticism of errors in economic policy.

It was not immediately clear whether Yeltsin's removal marked a personal defeat for Gorbachev.

Gorbachev Rebuke Seen

The move was perceived by some as a victory for party hard-liners thought to be led by Ligachev. According to one liberal editor, "This is a rebuke to Gorbachev's policy."

But the Central Committee member, who is a strong Gorbachev ally, said in an interview, "This has nothing to do with liberalism and everything to do with Yeltsin's instability and grandstanding." The official added that Yeltsin, who is also certain to be removed from his post as a non-voting member of the Politburo, first offered his resignation in an "impetuous speech, like he was having a nervous breakdown," in the closing moments of the Oct. 21 Central Committee meeting.

That plenum had been convened to discuss the contents of Gorbachev's speech to be delivered at the Nov. 2 celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. As the meeting of 600 participants was wrapping up after approximately 20 scheduled comments, Gorbachev asked if anyone else had any remarks.

At that point, according to the Central Committee member, Yeltsin rose to state that he had sent letters of resignation to both the Communist Party Central Committee and to the Moscow party committee. In offering the reasons for his resignation, the source said, Yeltsin strenuously attacked Politburo member Ligachev, the party's No. 2 official, for what Yeltsin called his interference in efforts at perestroika, the label for Gorbachev's economic reconstruction program.

Leading to Disenchantment

Yeltsin also criticized several lines in Gorbachev's proposed speech, which he interpreted as a prediction of progress in the next two to three years as a result of the reconstruction policy, the Central Committee members said. Yeltsin told the shocked audience that such rosy predictions would lead to public disenchantment because the road ahead was a tough one, the source said. Gorbachev pointed out that the lines in his speech intended to convey that the next years would be trying rather than easy ones, and Yeltsin seemed mollified.

However, according to the Central Committee member, before sitting down Yeltsin leveled a parting blast at Politburo members he termed uncritical in their praise of Gorbachev. After a bit of uproar in the hall, he qualified his criticism to say he was referring to only two members of the ruling body. He then sat down, and the meeting was adjourned, with Gorbachev stating that the resignation offer would have to be considered by the local Moscow party plenum. It was that body that met Wednesday and removed Yeltsin from his post.

Pro-Yeltsin Demonstration

There has been at least one demonstration, on Nov. 6, of more than 1,000 Muscovites in favor of Yeltsin, and many Moscow liberal intellectuals identify with him as a strong supporter of glasnost. They indicate that Ligachev is a critic of glasnost who has criticized the more liberal press, and they interpret Yeltsin's decline as a rebuke to Gorbachev himself.

But the senior Central Committee member strenuously contested this interpretation. He said that it was actually Ligachev who had first pushed Yeltsin to prominence and that Gorbachev had very little prior contact with him.

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