08/17/1998 14:35:26 Ельцин ищет "козла отпущения" в ситуации с рублем
By Alastair Macdonald MOSCOW, Aug 17 (Reuters) - President Boris Yeltsin's last public comment before his government effectively devalued the Russian rouble on Monday was: "There will be no devaluation." He is not a man who likes to admit mistakes. So the U-turn raises many questions and precedent suggests Yeltsin's subordinates may pay the price for this loss of face. Yeltsin may have been deliberately less than truthful on Friday. Many an honest statesmen has tried -- and usually failed -- to save a crippled currency by wishful thinking out loud. He may genuinely have thought that the stable rouble, the one concrete economic achievement of his rule to benefit the entire Russian people, could be maintained. If so, he seems to have been poorly informed or failed to understand the situation. Yeltsin, 67, made a number of contradictory remarks on Friday during a visit to Novgorod which reinforced impressions that he is not always as alert as he once was, two years after heart bypass surgery renewed his life and his presidency. He said, for example, he would not interrupt his holiday to return to Moscow, saying that would sow panic on the markets. Then he hinted that, perhaps, he would return. On Saturday, he flew back. The official line was that the fishing was poor. He also looked bewildered at one point when, during a visit to a meat plant, he seemed unable to spot his spokesman among a group of aides all clad in identical factory clothing and hats. The Kremlin said on Monday that Yeltsin backed his government's decision to bow to market pressure and drop the official dollar floor under the rouble by 25 percent. A Kremlin spokesman added that he did not plan to sack anyone. But there were also reports that Yeltsin's economic adviser had offered to quit and also a report that the Kremlin was calling for the head of central bank chief Sergei Dubinin. Though shown on television speaking animatedly to Sergei Kiriyenko, the hitherto obscure 36-year-old he appointed as prime minister in March to try to stimulate moribund market reforms, Yeltsin's comments on the rouble move were unknown. In the past, Yeltsin has tended to make liberal use of the sack against his subordinates when policies go wrong. He has rarely admitted to mistakes. An exception was the war in Chechnya, though a slew of ministers and senior aides paid with their jobs before the president said he might have erred personally in launching the 1994 offensive against separatists. His most dramatic sacking was that of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in March after more than five years in office. Chernomyrdin paid the price of nearly a decade of economic decline and the battering Russia's finances took over last winter following the start of the Asian financial crisis. Kiriyenko, however, has found himself in even more of a dire situation and there are no shortage of analysts who foresee an early end to his career as premier in the present circumstances. Yeltsin has made the unexpected a key ingredient of his leadership since becoming Russian president in 1991. But he had also made much of the way he had restored a measure of certainty to the economy by taming the four-digit inflation that struck after the collapse of communism. While for millions of Russians that victory over inflation has been accompanied by mass unemployment or months without pay, Yeltsin was at least able to point to a specific element of success that was to the benefit of all. It is not yet clear how far the rouble will fall after Monday's easing of its official band. It may not decline very much. But confidence in the currency has been shaken and Yeltsin will be aware that that will tell on his own popular image. Having pledged to step down when his term ends in mid-2000, the president seems anxious to preserve his place in history as the ruler who brought democracy and the free market to Russia. The inflation that would follow a slide in the rouble would be a blow to that image and there is no shortage of precedent for Yeltsin to react by blaming subordinates.