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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

War Puts Russian Envoy Back on Front Line

Diplomacy: A year after being ousted as premier, Chernomyrdin is his country's best hope to broker a Yugoslavia accord.

May 04, 1999|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russian special envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin's meeting Monday with President Clinton to discuss a peace plan for Kosovo was one of the brightest moments yet in the former prime minister's political comeback.

Booted out of the Russian government by President Boris N. Yeltsin more than a year ago, Chernomyrdin was later rejected by parliament as well. His opinion poll ratings hit rock bottom, and his chances of becoming Russia's next president were reduced to rubble.

But political fortunes change quickly in Russia. During the past three weeks, Chernomyrdin has emerged as his country's best hope for bringing an end to NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia and reasserting Russia's influence in world affairs.

Since Yeltsin appointed him special envoy to the Balkans on April 14, Chernomyrdin has been welcomed in capitals from Belgrade to Washington, meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic one day and with Clinton another.

"Viktor Chernomyrdin has a lot of good clout in the West and in this country," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir O. Rakhmanin. "He is a political heavyweight, a well-established and strong figure who can make a substantial contribution in the search for a political settlement."

Within the Clinton administration, Chernomyrdin's appointment as mediator also has won praise. Although he was a top-level Communist official during Soviet times, Chernomyrdin is widely viewed in Washington as a pragmatic, pro-Western politician who knows how to make a deal.

Vice President Al Gore, who met frequently with Chernomyrdin during sessions of a joint U.S.-Russian commission they headed, fondly calls him "my friend."

"We have spent many, many long hours together over these years," Gore said in 1998 at the final commission meeting Chernomyrdin attended. "On a personal note, I would like to say how grateful I am for his leadership, for his frankness, and for his tenacity and stamina in pushing our common interests forward."

Chernomyrdin, 61, stocky, uncharismatic and often inarticulate, is described as "wooden" almost as frequently as Gore is. He is famous for his ability to mangle the syntax of his native Russian and for occasional comments that would do Yogi Berra proud. "We wanted to do it better," he once observed of his own government, "but it came out as usual."

Despite his simple, self-effacing manner and lack of popular appeal, Chernomyrdin has proved successful under both Communist dictatorship and crony capitalism.

Born into a peasant family in the southern Urals, he started as a machine operator with a technical school education but soon became the head of the natural gas refinery where he worked.

Having joined the Communist Party at the age of 23, he worked his way through the ranks of the bureaucracy to become Soviet minister of the gas industry and a member of the Communist Party Central Committee under Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, he began creating one of Russia's few successful enterprises--the natural gas monopoly that now goes by the name Gazprom. Today, it is the country's second-largest company and controls more than one-third of the world's natural gas reserves.

After the Communist plotters' unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Gorbachev in 1991, Chernomyrdin quit the Communist Party and teamed up with Yeltsin, who named him prime minister of Russia in December 1992.

He survived more than five years in the job--far longer than anyone else who has held the post. He kept his job despite the government's 1993 tank attack on parliament, Russia's unsuccessful war in Chechnya, the steady deterioration of the economy, the blossoming of official corruption and the privatization of government assets that turned a handful of political insiders into billionaires.

He also weathered allegations that he received holdings worth billions of dollars as a result of his time at the head of Gazprom--a charge he vehemently denies.

The end for Chernomyrdin finally came in March 1998, when he appeared to be angling publicly for Yeltsin's job. Not one to tolerate competition, Yeltsin fired him for his seeming disloyalty. Chernomyrdin took his dismissal stoically and said he would begin organizing his campaign for the presidential elections in 2000.

Within five months, the tottering economy that Chernomyrdin had managed to keep propped up collapsed under the leadership of the new prime minister, Sergei V. Kiriyenko. Yeltsin fired Kiriyenko and called Chernomyrdin back to work, but it was too late: The Communist-dominated lower house of parliament refused to confirm Chernomyrdin's reappointment.

Yeltsin was forced in September to turn to a compromise candidate for prime minister, Yevgeny M. Primakov, a former top intelligence official who had served as foreign minister in Chernomyrdin's Cabinet.

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