Cabinet seats for old order

RUSSIA WAS heading for a fundamental change in its political landscape last night after the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, confirmed he is considering a coalition government in which the Communist Party - Boris Yeltsin's arch-enemies - could have cabinet seats.

It suggests that the weakened Mr Yeltsin is resigned to making sweeping concessions to secure parliament's speedy confirmation of the new Prime Minister in the face of a worsening economic crisis.

Yesterday the rouble lost another 10 per cent against the dollar - its biggest drop in four years. Amid fears that a currency crash is only just beginning, queues formed outside banks for the second time in just over a week, as Russians sought to buy dollars and shopkeepers scrambled to mark up prices.

President Yeltsin - who awoke yesterday to a barrage of media speculation that his days are numbered - tried to limit the damage by announcing during a photo-call that he feels "okay". Yesterday afternoon he had a 30-minute telephone conversation with the US President, Bill Clinton, who is due in Moscow for a two-day summit next Tuesday.

Officials said the discussion focused on their forthcoming meeting. It will also have covered the Russian President's unexpected decision to sack his four-month-old government; the acute banking crisis, and Moscow's plans to reschedule $40bn (pounds 25bn) of short-term rouble-denominated debt.

By holding out the carrot of a coalition - or what he described as a "government of accord" - Mr Chernomyrdin may merely be making promises to lure parliamentary support that he later intends to break.

But Russia's restless legislature, so long restrained by a 1993 constitution that overwhelmingly places power in the President's hands, now smells blood.