Rumours of Primakov sacking sweep Moscow

NOT CONTENT with successfully restoring some of Russia's global clout by securing a mediator's role in the Kosovo crisis, Boris Yeltsin has opened a new battlefront - against his own Prime Minister and parliament.

Several Russian news outlets yesterday led their broadcasts with claims that the President is about to sack his premier, Yevgeny Primakov, and replace him with an obscure railways minister, Nikolai Aksenenko.

Speculation has been simmering in Moscow for weeks that Mr Yeltsin will throw out Mr Primakov, triggering domestic political turmoil in the midst of severe economic depression and an international crisis. But yesterday this gained momentum as parliament prepared to launch long-threatened impeachment proceedings tomorrow.

Relations between the two men have been steadily deteriorating, and are now hostile. The President has been affronted by his Prime Minister's attempts to lessen the Kremlin's power and generally dislikes his ties to his arch-enemies, the Communists.

Pro-market elements in Mr Yeltsin's inner circle regard the government of Mr Primakov - a popular figure who is seen as a front-runner for the presidency - as a throw-back to the moribund Brezhnev years.

A presidential spokesman said yesterday there was "no reason to discuss" Mr Primakov's dismissal, but there were strong suspicions that the Kremlin was the source of yesterday's rumours. Mr Yeltsin has publicly humiliated the premier several times, and the Kremlin has made clear that Mr Primakov is dispensable. If the Prime Minister is fired, a showdown between Mr Yeltsin and parliament - which must approve any replacement premier - is certain.

The veiled threats to Mr Primakov may be an attempt by the Kremlin to intimidate the State Duma, parliament's lower house, before the impeachment hearings, which threaten to divert attentionfrom a meeting between Mr Yeltsin and Jacques Chirac. The French President arrives in Moscow today to discuss Kosovo.

The Communists, the chamber's largest party, are keen to keep Mr Primakov in place as he has secured them more power than they have previously held in the Yeltsin years, and has treated Western market reforms with caution.

Yesterday the house leadership decided to hold three days of hearings, beginning tomorrow, in an effort to get the impeachment proceedings off the ground. Mr Yeltsin faces five charges, including bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union and launching an illegal war in Chechnya.

Although the 450-strong chamber could muster the 300 votes needed to launch an impeachment it is extremely unlikely to threaten Mr Yeltsin's remaining 15 months in office.