Russia's reckoning: Yeltsin offers concessions

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The Independent Online
AN EMBATTLED Boris Yeltsin last night offered to give away some of his sweeping powers as master of the Kremlin, but categorically refused to resign, saying it was "impossible" to remove him, given his "character".

The 67-year-old president, renowned both for stubbornness and an autocratic streak, had earlier appeared on national television, trying to bring calm to a rapidly escalating political and economic crisis.

Looking puffy-faced, but relatively strong, he spelt out his position in his familiar gruff and laborious style. "I will not resign," he said, addressing millions of disaffected Russians now caught in the midst of a crumbling currency, certain inflation, and a banking crisis. He would, however, not be standing in the elections due in 2000.

However, his representative in the lower house of parliament, Alexander Kotenkov, said later the president was willing to make four key concessions, which would involve amendments to the constitution that Yeltsin has hitherto vigorously defended. According to the aide, the prime minister, not the president, should appoint ministers; parliament should have a right of review of ministerial appointments, and the new government should have a year to work without being attacked by Yeltsin or the Duma.

Whether his offer will be accepted depends on negotiations with parliament, where opposition parties have threatened to refuse to confirm Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister.

Yesterday, after an evening of intense discussions, Mr Kotenkov said a deal was close, but this was disputed by the dominant Communist faction in the Duma, which wants firmer guarantees.

During his otherwise rambling remarks on television, the president boasted of being an "optimist by nature", and vowed to do everything possible to halt the inevitable price rises. But he is certain to be criticised for saying absolutely nothing specific about what he will now do, referring vaguely to a "stabilisation programme", and "resolving issues with personnel".

His appearance, after several days out of sight, came amid growing pressure for him to part with some of his sweeping constitutional powers, and a flurry of rumours that he was planning to quit.

But Mr Yeltsin insisted: "I want to say that I am not going anywhere. I am not going to resign. I will work as I am supposed to for my constitutional term." But he admitted it would be "naive" to believe that some people will not suffer.

International gloom over Russia's future deepened yesterday with Mr Yeltsin's long- expected decision to sack Anatoly Chubais, chief architect of the so- called "reforms".

One measure of the change was a meeting between the US ambassador, James Collins, and the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov - an indication that President Clinton may meet the Communists in Moscow next week.

Defending his decision to go despite the turmoil, President Clinton said last night that the United States would "stick with Russia" if it took the "disciplined action" needed to reform the country and the economy. National security advisor, Sandy Berger, said there was " no reason to believe" that Mr Yeltsin was not in firm control of the military, or other elements of the government.

Shockwaves from the Russian crisis continued to be felt around the world yesterday as governments and banks went to extreme lengths to ward off the threat of economic meltdown.

The FTSE 100 Index of leading UK shares went on a rollercoaster ride, falling by 260 points in early trading, to its lowest level since February, then recovering, before diving again to close down 103 points at 5265.5. In New York, the Dow Jones Index was down 114.31 at 8051.68 when it closed.

The finance ministers of Europe's four biggest economies attempted to restore confidence by offering close co-operation with Russia in dealing with its currency and debt crisis. In a joint letter, Germany, France, Britain and Italy said that Russia must fully implement reforms agreed with the International Monetary Fund

In Russia, long queues continued at banks as people vainly sought to buy foreign cur- rency: 200 Russian schoolchildren were stranded abroad after their tour operator went bust; shops started accepting dollars rather than roubles; and gold and jewellery sales rocketed, as Russians desperately dumped their currency.