Yeltsin fires second cannonade at aides

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A DAY after being plucked from obscurity to become acting prime minister of a huge and restless nuclear power, Sergei Kiriyenko, yesterday began work in forming a government - without knowing for sure whether his own job is permanent, writes Phil Reeves.

As he did so, Boris Yeltsin fired off a second cannonade in his eccentric campaign to prove to his countrymen and the world that he remains in charge of Russia, despite his ailments and the struggling economy.

In a cameo performance on television one day after dismissing his entire government, including premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, the 67-year-old President turned his ire on his own aides. "We must create an environment in which everyone knows and feels that a failure to fulfil orders means death," he said, "You will have immediately to submit your resignation."

Mr Yeltsin's latest flourish of the axe through the ranks of his team was clearly timed. On 9 April, the Communist opposition plans mass demonstrations to call for the removal of the government, and to protest at Russia's vast wages and pension arrears and economic disarray. But it also belongs to his broader ambition to win a place in history as a reformer. Tomorrow, he hopes to bask anew in the international limelight by hosting a summit with French president, Jacques Chirac, and Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor.

The little-known Mr Kiriyenko, 35, has been given a week by Mr Yeltsin to form a government. But although he fired them all, Mr Yeltsin has already indicated that he does not intend to dispense with many ministers beyond Mr Chernomyrdin, his leading

market reformer Anatoly Chubais and the interior minister, Anatoly Kulikov. The jobs of two key players - foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, and defence minister Sergei Sergeyev - are considered safe.

Whether Mr Kiriyenko becomes prime minister remains uncertain. A political novice, with only a three-month stint as fuel and energy minister under his belt, Mr Kiriyenko may have been chosen by Mr Yeltsin as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the next premier with parliament. The Russian press has been seething with speculation. Among those tipped are the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, first deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, and Ivan Rybkin, minister for Commonwealth affairs.