Moscow Fiddles as Ruble Burns

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MOSCOW: Anybody here? President Clinton is expected at the Kremlin Monday, but he may find it difficult to determine just who is in charge of Russia. As the economy lurches into free fall and drags world markets downward, rumors abound that a lame-duck President Boris Yeltsin is about to step down, while his prime minister-designate Viktor Chernomyrdin still awaits confirmation.

The political vacuum only compounds the financial crisis: While the government is no longer making any effort to defend the plummeting ruble and frenzied bankers go after dollars to protect their personal fortunes, Chernomyrdin looks set to simply ban trading in foreign currencies. The reinstated prime minister hopes to straddle the mutually exclusive demands of the Communists, whom he aims to bring into government, and the IMF, which he plans to hit up for more billions. "Chernomyrdin has given no sign of having a coherent policy to stop the meltdown in Moscow," says TIME Moscow bureau chief Paul Quinn-Judge. "A lot of the country has been living without money for years, because of the ham-fisted policies of successive Yeltsin administrations -- most of them headed by Chernomyrdin."