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Yeltsin's Backing for Nominee Not So Sure

Politics: President demurs over whether he would dissolve Duma if Chernomyrdin is rejected as premier.


MOSCOW — As the value of the beleaguered ruble plunged 18% Wednesday and Communist leaders warned of "civil war," crucial backing for Viktor S. Chernomyrdin's attempted comeback as Russia's prime minister appeared to be slipping away.

President Boris N. Yeltsin, who had insisted earlier that he would stand by his nominee, equivocated when asked at a joint news conference with President Clinton whether he is prepared to dissolve parliament if it refuses to confirm Chernomyrdin.

"Quite a few things will have to happen to bring about such results," the president replied obliquely. After a pause, he told his puzzled audience, "That's all."

Tycoon Boris A. Berezovsky, widely believed to have persuaded Yeltsin to reappoint Chernomyrdin in the first place, went on nationwide television hours later to say he now questions whether the former prime minister can lead Russia out of its political and economic crisis.

"Chernomyrdin had a chance to appear new," the billionaire said on "Hero of the Day," a widely watched interview show. "Unfortunately, the steps he is taking now don't prove this. But not everything is lost yet."

Berezovsky, thought to be one of Yeltsin's closest advisors, said the president understands that he erred over the years in not preparing a strong-willed successor who shares his vision of building a market-oriented democracy.

But Berezovsky pointed to two politicians who could exert the kind of strong leadership he said Russia needs: Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov and retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, the governor of Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region.

"Bright political leaders do exist, the brightest being Lebed and Luzhkov," Berezovsky said. "Any confrontation between them will weaken the political force, but the choice will have to be made."

Behind closed doors, Communist and nationalist leaders have begun discussing plans to transform the political crisis into civil strife, giving opposition parties the chance to seize power, the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported today.

The newspaper published what it said were minutes of a meeting held by opposition leaders Tuesday in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, at which they discussed the possibility of disobeying Yeltsin if he dissolves parliament.

"The dissolution of the Duma will lead to strong upheavals in the country," the paper quotes leftist lawmaker Stanislav S. Govorukhin as saying. "Patience runs out one day. That's it. This is the limit. We are declaring civil war in our own country."

According to the newspaper, ultranationalist leader Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky said: "I suggest on Sept. 13 leading people out into the streets under the banners of all the parties. Two to 3 million people will stand up in Moscow. We can take several million to the Kremlin, to Manezh Square. We will close Moscow down."

Govorukhin and Zhirinovsky could not be reached for comment on the newspaper's report.

The threat of civil unrest came as Russia's economy took another turn for the worse Wednesday. The Central Bank set the ruble's official value at 12.82 to the dollar, down 17.8% from the previous day. When the latest crisis began in mid-August, the ruble's value was set at 6.2 to the dollar.

The Central Bank, which had spent $9 billion during the past two months trying to prop up the ruble, also announced that it will let the currency float freely, which could lead to further rapid devaluation. Major institutional trading is scheduled to resume today after a one-week moratorium imposed to halt the currency's free fall.

In a separate action, the Central Bank also ordered six of Russia's biggest banks to freeze the accounts of individual depositors because of concerns over the banks' solvency. The banks were ordered to encourage customers to transfer their savings to a government-controlled bank, which says it will guarantee depositors' money.

Berezovsky, often likened to Rasputin--a mystic who wielded influence over Czar Nicholas II--because of his purported power to influence Yeltsin, had earlier predicted that Chernomyrdin would be confirmed for a second stint as prime minister. But after Chernomyrdin was soundly rejected Monday by the Duma, Berezovsky altered his approach.

"Our Rasputin made a television appearance today and declared that 'oops, there has been a change of plans, folks,' " said Andrei A. Piontkovsky, director of the Independent Institute for Strategic Studies. "Berezovsky demonstrated that he is dumping Chernomyrdin and is now staking on Lebed in his big political game."

The president, who gets three tries under the constitution to win approval of his prime minister, renominated Chernomyrdin after Monday's balloting. Keeping up pressure on the Kremlin, the Duma said it will move up the vote on the nomination to Friday, when it is expected to reject Chernomyrdin again.

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