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RETURN OF CHERNOMYRDIN NOT A GOOD SIGN

The decision to reach boldly back to the past to resurrect Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is the surest sign yet of a frightening possibility: Russian President Boris Yeltsin has no idea how to stem his country's economic slide.

That prospect is scary because Russia's economic crisis has security implications for America. The consequences for the West could be grave if social instability erupts, regressives return to power and Russia's formidable arsenal falls under the control of hard-liners or parts of it get sold to extremists elsewhere by a government in need of cash.

With Russia's economy teetering and critics calling for his own head, Yeltsin threw overboard Sergei Kiriyenko, the 36-year-old reformer he tapped to replace Chernomyrdin just five months ago.

Kiriyenko was picked, and Chernomyrdin ousted, precisely because Russia needed bold, energetic leadership and new ideas to break from the past. It still does.

Russia also needed a fresh, young reform-minded prime minister who was not beholden to the bankers, businessmen and political brokers who profited most under the old, Soviet-style bureaucracy. It still does.

But in Chernomyrdin, it gets a 60-year-old, Soviet-trained insider who's resisted reforms and tried to slow Russia's painful but essential transition to free-market policies.

Such a move may temporarily quell calls for Yeltsin's scalp from the businessmen and politicians most able to exploit a retreat. It buys time for a president never hesitant to make scapegoats of aides to shield himself from blame. But it raises serious doubts about Russia's ability and willingness to undertake the steps demanded when the International Monetary Fund approved a $22.6 billion bailout last month. Those steps include more aggressive tax collection, an end to financial cronyism and an end to protection for failing banks and other enterprises.

That is the only prescription for Russia's long-term rescue, yet it's one Yeltsin has a hard time swallowing -- as the effective devaluation of the ruble, suspension of foreign debt and restructuring of domestic debt make clear.

Without reforms that create an economy investors can have confidence in, Russia will spiral downward at a pace that will rile even a populace long noted for patience. That's a point President Clinton will have to impress on Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin -- assuming Chernomyrdin's still around by then -- when he travels to Moscow next week for a summit. Clinton's success in getting that message across will have implications not only for Russia, but for the world.

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