Coalition to save Russia falls apart

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S CRISIS deepened last night with the threatened collapse of a power-sharing deal, setting the scene for a show-down between an isolated Boris Yeltsin and parliament.

The success of the nomination of the President's candidate for prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was on a knife-edge after the Communist Party abruptly withdrew its support for his confirmation late last night. The move could spoil the plans of the Kremlin, which wants a prime minister installed as soon as possible to start tackling Russia's worsening economic crisis, and would like Mr Chernomyrdin in place before the start of tomorrow's summit meeting between Mr Yeltsin and President Bill Clinton.

The Communists' announcement came after a day of intense negotiations with representatives from the Kremlin, both houses of parliament, and Mr Chernomyrdin which initially appeared to have secured an agreement to transfer powers away from the Kremlin to parliament. Under it, parliament would have received the right to veto all ministerial appointments except the "power" ministries - foreign, interior, and defence - and the federal security services, which would remain under the control of the president.

But within hours the deal appeared to fracture with the announcement by Gennady Zyuganov, who heads the Communist faction, the largest parliamentary group, that he would not sign it. He also said that his party would not support Mr Chernomyrdin's candidacy, due for debate in the Duma, the lower house, today.

"Tomorrow ... the whole faction will vote against Chernomyrdin," he told Russia's NTV commercial television station. "Mr Chernomyrdin is an accomplice with Yeltsin in the destruction of the past five years."

Mr Zyuganov has a record of changing tack at the last minute, so the Kremlin and Mr Chernomyrdin may yet be able to salvage the deal. But he will be under pressure from hardliners in his party to extract as many concessions as possible before today's vote.

However, the signs last night were less than promising. Complicating the situation was an announcement from the erratic leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who also said his group - the third largest party - would not be voting for the power-sharing deal. Grigori Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko, also criticised the agreement.

The deal was awaiting Mr Yeltsin's signature last night, although it seemed to have begun to fracture seriously before he had the chance to sign. Earlier in the day it had been apparently sealed after days of talks by Kremlin aides, parliamentary leaders from both houses, and Mr Chernomyrdin's camp. It included an agreement not to dissolve the Duma until the end of its term next year, and a suspension of all votes of no confidence in the new government.

What Russia may now be witnessing is a deal-making process in which the parties are willing to take it down to the wire before finally agreeing to Mr Chernomyrdin's nomination. But the stakes are high.

The Communists are gambling with a proposed change to the constitution which could change the balance of power significantly between the executive and legislature. Mr Yeltsin has consistently opposed any changes while in power.

Overarching these political machinations is a fast worsening crisis which has shattered Russia's financial system and sent the rouble and stock market plunging. If Mr Chernomyrdin is rejected today, Mr Yeltsin would lose valuable time because he would have formally to resend his request to give the deputies up to seven days of extra deliberations.

Brinkmanship or not, last night's events will only add to the mood of alarm about Russia's fate in the West, where there are fears that it could be about to drift back to the policies of the past - particularly from Washington and the International Monetary Fund, which is supervising a battered $23bn (pounds 13.9bn) rescue package.

To counter these sentiments, and to ensure the next tranche of IMF money, Mr Chernomyrdin formed a group of senior reformers, headed by Boris Fyodorov, acting Deputy Prime Minister and tax supremo, to prepare urgent anti- crisis measures. But given the turmoil here last night, the West will need something more convincing than this.