MOSCOW — Pushing Russia to the brink of a new political crisis, President Boris N. Yeltsin fired popular Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov on Wednesday and named the nation's top police official, Sergei V. Stepashin, to head a new government.
Yeltsin, raising the stakes in his long-running battle with the Communist-dominated lower house of parliament, dismissed Primakov in an apparent bid to outmaneuver lawmakers as they decide this week whether to impeach the president.
Yeltsin told the nation that he dismissed Primakov because the prime minister had failed to revive Russia's economy since September, when he was appointed in a compromise between the president and the Duma, parliament's lower house.
"The prime minister's caution, his readiness to take on only those measures that get maximum approval and support, are now beginning to cause damage," the president said in a televised address. "We do not need a stabilization of poverty and economic slump. We need a serious breakthrough."
Despite Yeltsin's words, the firing of Primakov was widely perceived as a move by the president to eliminate his biggest rival and gain the upper hand over the Duma, which is set to begin debating today five articles of impeachment.
The nomination of Stepashin--a loyal Yeltsin backer who commands 200,000 troops and police as Russia's interior minister--creates a complex political situation: Stepashin has little support in parliament, but if deputies vote three times to reject his nomination, Yeltsin would be required under the constitution to dissolve the Duma.
Yeltsin, fighting to regain political control after months of illness, has in one stroke set the stage for a bizarre constitutional standoff in which the Duma could impeach the president while the president disbands the Duma.
"The dismissal of Primakov will contribute tremendously to the destabilization of the political situation in Russia," said Sergei M. Rogov, director of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow. "Apparently the period of relative stability which this society enjoyed for the last nine months is over. Right now, it seems that trouble is coming."
The political turmoil also comes at a time when Russia is playing a central role in attempting to mediate the war between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Yugoslavia.
Many months in the making, the impeachment drive against Yeltsin will come to a head in the Duma with debate over the five charges against him: helping disband the Soviet Union in 1991; improperly using force to dissolve parliament in 1993; starting the war in the separatist republic of Chechnya in 1994; destroying the Russian military through lack of funding; and adopting destructive economic and social policies that constitute genocide against the Russian people.
The Duma has scheduled three full days of debate, culminating in a vote Saturday. Duma leaders said earlier that only the charge linked to the Chechen war had a chance of passage, but the firing of Primakov may inspire more deputies to vote for impeachment.
Even if the Duma votes to impeach him, the constitution favors Yeltsin. It gives two high courts--both filled with Yeltsin's appointees--the chance to overturn the charges before they reach the final arbiter, the upper house of parliament, which tends to be less antagonistic toward Yeltsin than the Duma.
A constitutional crisis could develop if the Duma impeaches Yeltsin at the same that it refuses to confirm his nominee for prime minister. One provision of the constitution prohibits the president from dissolving the Duma if he has been impeached. But another clause requires him to disband the Duma if it fails to approve a prime minister after three attempts.
Yeltsin's quest to hang on to power despite the possible disruption to the country has brought criticism from all quarters. Burdened by continual health problems that have left him hospitalized or in recovery for nearly a third of his second term, he has become politically isolated and relies on a small group of advisors that includes his daughter, Tatiana.
"Mr. Yeltsin is the only trouble for Russia, the only destabilizing factor in Russian politics during the whole decade," said Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, who worked for Yeltsin's 1996 presidential campaign. "I don't think he can think rationally, but he has a great instinct for power."
The firing of Primakov marks the third time Yeltsin has dismissed a prime minister in the past 14 months. The ouster of Primakov touched off a storm of protest from Communists and other members of parliament who had supported him.
Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, who has spearheaded the impeachment drive, accused the president of firing Primakov out of jealousy over the prime minister's widespread backing.
"Only 2% support Yeltsin while support of Primakov is 60% and higher," Zyuganov said, citing a recent poll. "This is the main cause of the Primakov government's dismissal."