MOSCOW — One of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's top ministers stepped down Wednesday, saying he was sacrificing himself to help his president fend off attacks from hard-line opponents.
Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Poltoranin said his resignation was "a well-considered and balanced move, undertaken in a crucial moment for Russia's future . . . to protect the president from mounting attacks by the revenge-seeking opposition," the Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Poltoranin--a ruddy, outspoken former journalist who was also information minister and a longtime ally of Yeltsin's--timed his resignation just six days before an expected parliamentary showdown between Yeltsin and his opposition.
It came just a day after Yeltsin's unexpected dismissal of Yegor Yakovlev, chief of the main television network of the Commonwealth of Independent States and another frequent target of right-wing attacks.
Poltoranin's resignation indicated that Yeltsin was planning to pacify his political enemies with a series of sacrificial lambs. Several factions in the Congress of People's Deputies, the Russian Parliament convening next Tuesday, have been clamoring for members of Yeltsin's Cabinet to be fired, and Poltoranin's name had figured prominently on their hit lists.
His resignation provoked an immediate reaction from Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev, who has also suffered through repeated opposition attacks. Kozyrev told Itar-Tass that, after hearing that Poltoranin had resigned, he is "seriously thinking over the situation" but will make no decision before speaking with Yeltsin, "whose policy he still believes in."
Yeltsin's sudden apparent willingness to reshuffle top posts in advance of the Congress brought expressions of concern from the Russian media.
"No matter what, this decision upsets the political balance because a very powerful liberal figure has been removed from his position," Igor Malashenko, who replaced Yakovlev, said of the television chief's removal.
A panel of top Russian editors, speaking on a televised program Wednesday, savaged Yeltsin's decision to remove Yakovlev, warning that the Russian president could be slipping toward censorship and totalitarianism. "If we take the road that leads to political success over the bones of our comrades in arms rather than on their shoulders or arm in arm, this is a dangerous disease, a dangerous mechanism," Moscow News editor Len Karpinsky said.
Officially, Yakovlev was dismissed for biased coverage of the ethnic conflict in North Ossetia, the worst such violence to hit Russia proper. Yeltsin appears to have made the decision impetuously during a meeting with regional leaders--including those from North Ossetia--on Tuesday.
But Russian commentators said they believe the decision was actually part of a cynical political strategy. "Everyone understands that on the eve of the next Congress of People's Deputies, political maneuvering is under way that reflects on the personnel front as well," the Izvestia newspaper wrote.