The State Duma overwhelmingly rejected Mr Chernomyrdin's candidacy by 253 to 94 votes - 132 short of what he needed. In doing so, parliament made clear that it associates the wealthy former gas baron and prime minister from 1992 to March this year, with a period of government marred by corruption, a bungled privatisation programme, deepening poverty, the Chechen war and the growth of a manipulative oligarchical class.
The Kremlin did its best to frighten them into line. "If the chaos lasts for another couple of weeks, then there will be neither Communists, nor any of us left ... I have in mind a popular uprising," said Alexander Kotenkov, Mr Yeltsin's parliamentary representative.
So did Mr Chernomyrdin himself. Russia was on the verge of a political and economic breakdown, he warned, in a speech to the chamber. Time was running out. Fault lay with the "childish" government of his 36-year-old predecessor, Sergei Kiriyenko; he, Viktor Chernomyrdin, would sort out wage and pension arrears, the taxes and the crumbling banks.
His defeat came after the unravelling of a power-sharing deal struck after intense weekend talks between the Kremlin, the parliamentary leadership, and Mr Chernomyrdin, which would - historically - have transferred some of Mr Yeltsin's powers to the legislature.
There will now be another round of haggling, led by the Communists, who have 137 of the 226 votes that the prime minister needs to be confirmed. Yesterday, a senior hardline party official said it wanted 10 ministers in the cabinet, and Mr Yeltsin's resignation - an outcome that would appal the West, and its creditors in the International Monetary Fund, who have been warning that Moscow's $23bn (pounds 14bn) rescue package will be in jeopardy if it tries to introduce regressive, Soviet-era economic remedies.
The leader of the Yabloko liberal faction, Grigory Yavlinksy, described the situation as "very very unstable". "Power is paralysed. The government cannot do anything. This is the worst case that anyone can imagine."
Mr Chernomyrdin's rejection was so decisive that it may cause the Kremlin to contemplate choosing another candidate. The Communists have suggested several, including the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, and the moderate Duma speaker, Gennady Seleznyov. Last night, Mr Yeltsin's aides made clear the President is standing by his man, and will nominate him again.
If Mr Chernomyrdin is rejected twice more by the Duma, the President must dissolve parliament and call an early election. An end-game is underway. The question is whether Mr Yeltsin, who has shelled a previous legislature in order to get his way, will make more concessions to get a new government in place. Or will he hold out, gambling on the Duma's reluctance to bring about its own dissolution?
Beneath everything lurks the fear that Mr Yeltsin will impose a state of emergency, closing the Duma indefinitely. He seems too isolated to take that risky path. But nothing here is impossible.
Review, page 5Reuse content