Russian roulette

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 May, 1999, 12:00am

On Wednesday, Strobe Talbott, US Deputy Secretary of State, ended a discussion on Kosovo with Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, only to find Mr Ivanov had been sacked while it was going on.

A week is said to be a long time in politics. Under President Boris Yeltsin it is almost the span of a ministerial career. Mr Yeltsin has now disposed of four prime ministers in 14 months. But this clean-out of his cabinet leaves the world reeling. The fall-out will reach far beyond Russia's borders.

Turmoil in Moscow could have a direct effect on the situation in Kosovo. President Slobodan Milosevic was a close ally of sacked Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, and he may be encouraged to hold out against Nato's demands in the hope that Yeltsin has overplayed his hand, thus strengthening the influence of Mr Milosevic's communist friends in the Duma.

If the President's aim is to get economic reforms back on track so that he leaves office in 2000 having introduced a market economy, his gamble could easily backfire. Whatever his faults, Mr Primakov prevented hyperinflation, and stabilised the economy after the August crisis. He was expected to steer through the package of painful measures necessary before the payment of a $4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. In a resentful parliament, that is now unlikely.

This time, Mr Yeltsin's survival skills may fail. Cabinet reshuffles concentrated the minds of his ministers in the past, but the impeachment hearing, while not expected to succeed, may lead to more instability and even constitutional crisis. Losing this battle could mean an ignominious departure from the scene, with Russia in a worse state than it was when he took office.