Yeltsin backs off sacking Kozyrev

PHIL REEVES

Moscow

After delivering a verbal beating to Andrei Kozyrev, his loyal and long- serving Foreign Minister, President Boris Yeltsin yesterday decided to administer the smelling-salts. He indicated that Mr Kozyrev, once the embodiment of the new Russia's pro-Western stance, may not be dismissed after all - at least not yet.

His comments, as he left for France and the US with a smiling Mr Kozyrev at his side, came a day after he caused a flurry in the West by saying he planned to sack the minister as soon as a replacement could be found.

Mr Yeltsin appeared to back-pedal yesterday, saying Mr Kozyrev might well keep his job if a good deputy can be found for him. Taking Mr Kozyrev by the arm and turning towards the aircraft, he added: "We're flying together, aren't we?"

Mr Yeltsin's strategy appears to be one of trying to shift the attention of a disgruntled and frustrated Russian public away from himself in the run-up to an election year - a policy he is prepared to pursue even if it badly undermines Mr Kozyrev's credibility on the eve of talks with President Jacques Chirac and President Bill Clinton which are certain to cover key issues such as Nato expansion and Bosnia.

Mr Kozyrev is not the only official to suffer this tactic. Earlier this week Mr Yeltsin delivered a dressing-down to his Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, by ordering him to attend a libel case in which he is involved. Mr Grachev had earlier said he did not plan to appear, flouting a court order.

The whipping-boy before that was Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister, whom Mr Yeltsin snubbed by excluding him from the list of guests who visited the presidential holiday home on the Black Sea this summer. In Mr Chernomyrdin's case a more sinister force appears to have been at work: a clique led by Mr Yeltsin's two closest aides -Viktor Ilyushin and his ex-bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov - has been trying to undermine him both because they want their own candidate in his post and because they want Mr Yeltsin, and not Mr Chernomyrdin, to run for the presidency next year.

Mr Kozyrev's fate still hangs in the balance. To some extent, he is more useful in office than in exile, because he provides a punchbag whenever the President wants to try to direct blame away from himself. But the Foreign Minister may eventually weary of this. Under a new law he cannot be both a minister and a member of the State Duma, the lower house, after parliamentary elections in December. He may decide life as an MP is more pleasant than being humiliated before the world by a political bully-boy.

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