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FIRED RUSSIAN CABINET ASKED TO STAY FOR NOW

MOSCOW -- Acting Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin today asked the outgoing Cabinet to continue in their jobs for now, Interfax news agency said, quoting unnamed government sources.

The report said Chernomyrdin, requested by President Boris Yeltsin on Sunday to form a new government, had addressed the ministers earlier today and had asked them to carry on for the time being.

Yeltsin dismissed his government Sunday for the second time this year, replacing Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko with Chernomyrdin, the Soviet-style leader he had fired from the same post five months ago.

The surprise announcement came in the midst of one of the worst economic crises since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and one week after the Russian government effectively devalued its national currency, the ruble.

Yeltsin gave no reason for firing Kiriyenko, a 36-year-old former banker who had won respect from Western economists and some Russians even as he failed to stem the collapse of the Russian stock market and the steady degradation of the economy.

The Russian president, on the last day of a five-week vacation, issued a terse announcement through his press service. In it, he fired Kiriyenko and his Cabinet and appointed former Chernomyrdin acting prime minister.

Boris Nemtsov, the deputy prime minister who was one of the rising stars of Russian politics, said on Monday that he had no intention of continuing on in the new Cabinet.

Interfax quoted Chernomyrdin as saying that he did not intend to keep ministers in the new government who expressed a desire to leave.

Although Chernomyrdin is generally respected in political and business circles, the sudden change seemed likely to further undermine confidence in Yeltsin's leadership.

Yeltsin has a long history of firing top aides when things are not going well, always trying to shift the blame and absolve himself of any responsibility. He has fired dozens of ministers during his years in the Kremlin.

"It's simply comical," said Vladimir Lukin, a leader of the liberal Yabloko bloc in parliament. He said the decision "reveals the deep confusion and uncertainty at the center of executive power," according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

"It's not going to be good," said Charles Blitzer, a London investment banker who used to head the World Bank office in Moscow. "It's hard to see where Russia goes from here when they appoint a prime minister who so demonstrably did little about the fundamental problems" as Chernomyrdin.

Chernomyrdin, who headed the Gazprom national gas monopoly during the Soviet era, was Yeltsin's prime minister and right-hand man from December 1992 until this March, when the president said Russia needed new, more energetic leadership.

Yeltsin fought hard to get Kiriyenko ratified in parliament, angrily rejecting demands that he find another, more experienced premier. At one point, it appeared he might dissolve parliament because of the impasse over Kiriyenko.

Kiriyenko's appointment had barely been ratified when Russia's economy went into a tailspin, the victim of plunging world oil prices and the Asian economic crisis.

Since then, the young prime minister had been waging a losing battle to shore up the economy. He worked tirelessly to defend the ruble, negotiate loans with Western lenders and push reform measures through a hostile parliament dominated by Communists and their allies.

President Clinton's planned trip to Russia Sept. 1-2 will go ahead as scheduled despite Yeltsin's decision, the White House said Sunday.

White House spokesman P. J. Crowley said the United States would keep pressing Russia to implement what he said were crucial economic reforms.

"This is an internal matter within the Russian government," Crowley said of Yeltsin's sudden dismissal of Kiriyenko.

Last week, the government conceded defeat in the fight to save the ruble, announcing that it was effectively devaluing the currency by allowing its value to slip by up to 34 percent against the U.S. dollar.

On Friday, Kiriyenko personally delivered bitter medicine to the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, as he urged lawmakers to pass the government's new austerity package. "We can't afford the luxury of being a popular government," he said to a chorus of boos and jeers.

That same day, all factions in the Duma, even those that usually supported the government, demanded Kiriyenko's resignation. The Duma also passed a resolution calling on Yeltsin to resign.

Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov said he welcomed Yeltsin's decision to fire Kiriyenko, whose government was "not capable of working efficiently," the Interfax news agency reported.

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