President Boris Yeltsin gave a lukewarm endorsement Monday to Viktor Chernomyrdin's presidential bid in 2000 but stopped short of anointing the former premier as his preferred successor.

The president, who has made contradictory statements about his political plans, seemed Monday to indicate he does not intend to seek a third term.Yeltsin's uncertain health and the constitution's two-term limit would seem to rule out the possibility of another presidential bid. But aides have indicated the 67-year-old leader might get around the constitutional limitation and run again: They say Yeltsin's first term began during Soviet times and thus does not count.

The president fired Chernomyrdin and the entire government a week ago, saying the Cabinet was too preoccupied with politics to run the nation well. At the time, Yeltsin said he was freeing up Chernomyrdin to "prepare" for the presidential election in 2000.

Chernomyrdin announced over the weekend he would definitely be a candidate.

Today, Yeltsin said he "made the decision on the government's dismissal at the same time having in mind that (Chernomyrdin) will lead the presidential campaign."

"A strong leader is needed . . . and taking into account that I am dropping out of the elections, we should strengthen" the Kremlin team, the president said. "This does not violate the general course of our policy."

Still, Yeltsin's support for Chernomyrdin sounded a bit tepid and the president declined to name him heir apparent.

"You speak about succession when it concerns kings. And here people make the choice. The people will choose the successor," Yeltsin told reporters at the Kremlin. "Some start this campaign earlier and some later."

Chernomyrdin, a 59-year-old Soviet-era technocrat, served as premier for more than five years and was considered a stolid No. 2 to the more mercurial Yeltsin.

Some political observers speculate Chernomyrdin's growing political activity irritated Yeltsin. Others maintain the president fired Chernomyrdin to let him distance himself from the government as he prepared his candidacy.

Yeltsin has nominated 35-year-old reformer Sergei Kiriyenko as the new prime minister and threatened to dissolve parliament unless it approves his choice.

"I hope the Duma will confirm him," Yeltsin said Monday.

"It's all fine now," he added. Chernomyrdin "will work strongly, and this young man, . . . (Kiriyenko), is raring to go."

Communists and other opposition groups in the State Duma, parliament's lower house, want Yeltsin to roll back at least some of the government's economic reforms as a condition for supporting Kiriyenko.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said Monday his faction would ask Yeltsin to withdraw Kiriyenko's candidacy and hold broad discussions with the opposition to form the new Cabinet.