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Public Sees Madness in the Kremlin

IRKUTSK, Eastern Siberia, and MOSCOW -- For Lyosha, a Moscow construction worker, there was only one explanation for President Boris Yeltsin's umpteenth sacking of his government on Monday. The president is insane, he said.

"I have no idea what goes on in there [the Kremlin], but one thing is clear: It's a madhouse," said Lyosha, one of the workers repairing the chinks in the Kremlin wall on Monday. "I don't think the president can save himself because nobody really cares or is surprised by what the old fool does anymore."

And Lyosha is not alone in his beliefs. As news of Yeltsin's latest government shakeup, shelving Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin in favor of Federal Security Service chief Vladimir Putin, trickled down to the masses, Russians from Moscow to Siberia expressed their disgust with the president.

But after a year and a half of Kremlin reshuffles, many were already hardened to Monday's news of musical chairs. They just sighed upon hearing that Yeltsin had sacked the entire government yet again.

"We were just trying to remember how many governments have changed this year. Two or three? But nothing should surprise us. After all, we have a madman as our head of state," said Ivan Timoshenko, a 45-year-old retired lieutenant colonel who now drives a gypsy cab in Irkutsk - five time zones away from the Kremlin.

Timoshenko was among the hundreds of young officers who lost their jobs when the entire regional division of the air force was disbanded in 1994. As a retirement bonus, he was paid the equivalent of 20 monthly salaries - just enough to buy the used Toyota he now drives to make enough money to put his 17-year-old son through law school.

Like many of his military buddies, Timoshenko keeps hoping for a strong figure to take over and restore order to the country.

"We always hope for a [Augusto] Pinochet, but Putin is no Pinochet," Timoshenko said glumly. "And why change one [prime minister] for another when there is only one year of the presidency left?"

For Timoshenko and his army friends, Putin may not be the Pinochet they are waiting for. But for many Russians, the behind-the-scenes player did not register muchof a reaction at all.

"Who did you say Putin was?" asked Zhenya Molchanova, a hot dog seller in Alexandrovsky Sad. "I knew Stepashin, but I've never heard of Putin."

It is not surprising that Putin - a former KGB spy in Germany - is little known to a broader audience. He rarely appears on television, and his skills at pulling political strings while staying hidden from public view have earned him a reputation as Russia's "grey cardinal."

"It doesn't matter whether he was a former KGB man. Everyone in power is from the agency: [Yevgeny] Primakov, Stepashin and now Putin," said Alexei, a taxi driver, referring to Russia's past prime ministers. "Another change in prime ministers means little for us."

"Yeltsin's just the same. He's afraid and trying to defend himself and his family from a growing number of enemies," Alexei added, as he was driving by the office of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, a bitter Kremlin rival. "He doesn't care what happens to the country, he's been in power too long."

Many of those questioned seemed to care little about who the new prime minister is. As long as Yeltsin holds all the power, it doesn't seem to matter who heads the government, they said.

"Yeltsin has made himself tsar, but he's a crazy tsar and nobody cares anymore what he does. The country is already ruined," said Yevgeny, 67, a die-hard Communist supporter milling around Ploshchad Revolutsii in central Moscow to discuss Yeltsin's latest move with like-minded supporters.

But even this feisty locale - which normally draws crowds of protesters during government shake-ups - was quiet on Monday.

"Sacking the government has become such a routine that it doesn't shock me any longer, and I don't believe anybody can still be surprised by it," said Tatyana, who works in a milk factory in St. Petersburg. "I don't think it will have any effect on the stability of the country. Our government exists separately from the people."

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