Boris Yeltsin said Monday he recalled Viktor Chernomyrdin to head the government because an experienced leader was needed to tackle Russia's burgeoning crisis and restore political and economic stability.
Chernomyrdin, who was Yeltsin's prime minister for five years before being fired in March, faces an unprecedented economic crisis, a feisty parliament and a public skeptical that change at the top can improve its lot.
His reappointment came one week after the Russian government effectively devalued its national currency, the ruble, and announced it would restructure the country's short-term debts.
In a televised address a day after he dismissed the government of Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko on Sunday, Yeltsin suggested Chernomyrdin might be the best candidate to succeed him when his presidential term expires in 2000.
"Viktor Stepanovich's main advantages are decency, honesty, and thoroughness," Yeltsin said. "I think these qualities will be the decisive argument in the presidential elections."
Yeltsin asked parliament to approve his candidate, but parliamentary leaders announced that they would not convene a plenary session for at least a week and asked for more time to consider the appointment.
Yeltsin met with Chernomyrdin in his Kremlin office while Kiriyenko held a farewell meeting with his colleagues in the government headquarters known as the White House.
"Come to work, come to battle," Yeltsin said to Chernomyrdin as television cameras recorded the start of their meeting.
Kiriyenko asked his fellow ministers and deputies "not to leave their workplaces and to continue working until replacements are found" for them, Interfax reported.
Chernomyrdin started consultations on the makeup of the new government Monday. He spoke with regional leaders, including Gen. Alexander Lebed, the presidential hopeful who is governor of the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia. Chernomyrdin was expected to consult with parliamentary leaders later in the day.
"The first thing I will do as acting head of government is to analyze the situation on Russia's financial and stock markets," Chernomyrdin was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Although Chernomyrdin is generally respected in political and business circles, the sudden change seemed likely to further undermine confidence in Yeltsin's leadership and do nothing to pick up the spirits of Russians who have gone months without wages.
"The changes in the government will not make the slightest difference in the situation of Russia's miners, because what we are going through now is the direct result of the work of Chernomyrdin and his team," said Viktor Semyonov, the leader of a months-long picket by miners outside the White House.
But Lebed, the Krasnoyarsk governor, said he supported Chernomyrdin's return.
"Today the situation is such that the prime minister of Russia must be someone from among the political heavyweights," Lebed said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Senior Clinton administration officials said Sunday that they were troubled by Yeltsin's decision to dismiss his reformist Cabinet so close to the summit meeting with President Clinton next week in Moscow. But a spokesman said that Clinton had decided to go ahead with his trip.
Asked whether Yeltsin's action raised doubts about his control and stability, one official said, "It depends on your starting point." Senior officials say Yeltsin has "his ups and downs," and that he has never regained the stamina and focus he displayed before his heart attack in 1996.
"He can get up for a big meeting or telephone call with Clinton," one official said. "But it's not clear he can work for more than a few hours at a time."
While Clinton did not try to reach Yeltsin on Sunday by telephone, Vice President Al Gore spoke with both Kiriyenko and Chernomyrdin.
"Gore's purpose was to urge a continuation of the policies of economic reform," a senior White House official said. "Chernomyrdin has demonstrated in the past that he's more of a reformer than many people thought, and he has a lot more support in the Duma," the Russian parliament.