Mr Yeltsin's fleeting return to public view yesterday after retreating to hospital with an ulcer amounted to a counter-attack in a skirmish over an attempt to sideline him for the rest of his term, in which Mr Primakov played a leading part. At issue is a proposal, sent to parliament by Mr Primakov, in which Mr Yeltsin would forgo his powers to dismiss it in return for a guarantee of immunity for prosecution for any crimes he may be accused of committing during his eight years in the Kremlin - a period marred by corruption and war in Chechnya.
It also provided for his safety and welfare after he retires, officially next year. The President's spin-doctors said it was unconstitutional but insisted there was no disagreement between Mr Yeltsin and his prime minister. But to the outside world it bore the hallmarks of an ambitious power play by a man increasingly seen as the heir to the Kremlin.
Signs have been growing for weeks that Mr Primakov, former head of the foreign intelligence service, is consolidating his power base. This week Yuri Kobaladze, former public relations man for the intelligence agency, was appointed deputy head of Itar-Tass news agency. He is the tenth former intelligence officer to acquire an influential new job during Mr Primakov's five months in office. Mr Primakov has several key advantages: the national media is mostly muted in its criticism of him and some heavy hitters - notably the influential Itogi current affairs programme on television - barely disguise their eagerness to see him in the Kremlin.
The support he enjoys ranges from the moderate wing of the Communists to the liberal Yabloko party.
Unlike any of his predecessors, there is little chance of being fired by the boss. Mr Yeltsin will not want a rerun of his defeat by parliament last year, when the State Duma refused to confirm his first choice, Viktor Chernomyrdin, as prime minister.
Mr Primakov can also expect broad approval from the West. His interventionist economics chills the hearts of free- marketeers and investors. But policy-makers will view him as a better option than the other main contenders, the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and the former paratroop general Alexander Lebed, now governor of a Siberian province.
The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, saw Messrs Luzhkov and Lebed on her visit to Moscow this week. US-Russian relations have been strained by rows over Iraq, and US sanctions against several leading Moscow institutes for allegedly supplying missile and nuclear secrets to Iran.
But neither man will have offered Ms Albright any reason to hope for anything more palatable from them. Mr Luzhkov - a feisty nationalist who has been frantically trying to raise his profile in recent days - upbraided her over US policy, while Mr Lebed made headlines by sacking the head of his regional state-run television channel, saying he saw it has his job to "provide the people with information".
Mr Primakov is a wily old bird, part Homo Sovieticus, part cautious reformer. But he is the devil the West knows and in this precarious habitat that matters a great deal.Reuse content