Chubais tries to stem crisis in Russia

Top members of the Yeltsin administration are moving totoughen up their powers to counter a multiple crisis which is threatening Russia's fragile stability - the ill-health of the President, millions of unpaid workers, and the non-payment of billions of pounds in taxes.

The moves are being masterminded by Anatoly Chubais, the President's chief-of-staff, who has emerged during Boris Yeltsin's illness as the most powerful official in the country, prompting accusations from his opponents that he is running a regency.

Undeterred by such attacks, Mr Chubais is calling for the power of the state to be beefed up, and has set about concentrating more authority in the hands of a select few top officials, including himself.

Although his strategy is partly to prevent a repetition of the embarrassing squabbling at the top of the Kremlin that led to the recent sacking of the national security adviser, Alexander Lebed, it has more to do with the country's financial crisis. Millions of workers and servicemen have been unpaid for months, including the military, prompting warnings of unrest in the ranks.

Mr Chubais has played a leading part in the establishment of an emergency tax commission. And he was the force behind the creation of a new "council of four", comprising himself, the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the two heads of parliament. Its job appears to be that of overseeing and uniting the different arms of government.

In recent remarks, Mr Chubais made no secret that the two new bodies are part of a process to concentrate power at the top. "The consolidation of power - instead of constant mutual intrigues, instead of public discussions, instead of endless arguments - is exactly what the country needs." Yesterday he took up the theme again, complaining of the weakness of the power of the Russian state, and announcing plans to set up a body which would suspend laws that contradict the 1993 Russian constitution.

Such activities will be seen by his critics as further evidence that he is a power-hungry Kremlin official exploiting Mr Yeltsin's heart ailments to create an undemocratic regency.

However, his supporters are likely to see his actions less as an attack on democracy, and more as an attempt to solve several urgent crises.

In the first nine months of the year, the government collected only two- thirds of the tax it needs to meet its spending commitments. In addition, Russia's wage-arrears bill now stands at pounds 5bn. Tax cheats are one reason that millions of workers have gone unpaid since the summer. But the problem is complex. Money has disappeared into the foreign bank accounts of corrupt businessmen and bureaucrats. Mr Chubais's moves are also born of a belief that central government needs more power to force the administrators of Russia's republics, regions, and territories to toe the line.

"If the situation regarding tax collection continues as it is, I think we will cease to exist as a state," said Russia's labour minister, Gennady Melikyan. "And so, the government will have to be swept out of power and new people should be recruited who could tackle this task."

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