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Russia's power deal at mercy of intrigue

Kremlin crisis: Fragile agreement to share power between President, Prime Minister and parliament
ON THE face of it, it looked historic. Boris Yeltsin had never parted with any of his vast presidential powers. The constitution which he struggled hard to introduce had never been amended. And Russia's generally weak Communist-dominated parliament had never scored a comparable triumph.

But the power-sharing agreement struck between the Kremlin, parliament and the acting Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was fragile from the start.

Last night it seemed to have succumbed already to political infighting, as the Communists - whose support was vital - said they would not accept the deal. Their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, suddenly announced that they would not be voting to confirm Mr Chernomyrdin as Prime Minister. Hardliners within the party had clearly placed him under pressure to extract more concessions.

Earlier in the day, it seemed an accord might be reached to put an end to the political limbo created when President Yeltsin fired his entire government more than a week ago.

No doubt Mr Chernomyrdin still hopes disaster can be averted, that the Communists will pull back, and that Russia's lower house of parliament will confirm his nomination as Prime Minister, possibly later today in time for the start of tomorrow's summit in Moscow between President Yeltsin and his American counterpart, Bill Clinton.

The most crucial part of the agreement concerned the planned transfer of the right to veto the Prime Minister's ministerial appointments from Mr Yeltsin to parliament.

The Kremlin was always determined to keep control of the crucial "power" ministries - foreign, defence, and interior - and the federal security services. Mr Yeltsin and his camp well understood the importance of keeping control of the levers of the security apparatus, with their vast police forces, in this unstable land.

What the deal did allow was for parliament to have a say in how the cabinet is formed. Theoretically, this leverage could have been used by parliament's Communists to secure some of the top cabinet jobs, forcing some form of coalition government.

Theoretically, power would have shifted from the ruddy-walled Kremlin fortress to the State Duma nearby, creating a healthier balance between the legislature and executive.

Even before the Communists dropped their own political bombshell, there was a potential crisis-in-waiting over whether President Yeltsin would sign the accord.

However, it seemed likely that he would, as his aides, notably his chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, and parliamentary representative, Alexander Kotenkov, had taken part in the negotiations.

Even the President's signature would not have ensured the deal was carried out. There was no guarantee the deal would not have been ignored once Mr Chernomyrdin was safely in his new position.

To have any meaning, the agreement - hammered out in several days of intense talks - must be enshrined in the Russian constitution, passed by referendum in 1993. That means amending the constitution.

Mr Yeltsin has repeatedly sworn to resist any constitutional amendments. In a television interview on Friday he said it was "premature" to amend the constitution, suggesting he felt the deal could go ahead without it. If that happened, it would have little real weight, and would have been doomed anyway.

Amending the constitution involves a highly complex legal procedure, and there is no certainty of success. At the moment, ministers are put forward by the Prime Minister, but the right to hire and fire rests with the President under chapter 4, article 83 of the constitution.

If the deal was to have been truly enforceable, this clause would have had to be changed in favour of the legislature.

Under the constitution, such an amendment would have to be approved by two-thirds of the electorate, in a referendum. It is possible to get around this by changing the rules for amending the constitution.

But that would have to be approved by three-fifths of the upper and lower chambers of parliament, and would then either go before the Constitutional Assembly, where another three-fifths vote would be required, or be put to a public referendum. Weeks, if not months, of haggling looked inevitable.

But if Mr Chernomyrdin is confirmed in office, he needs to appoint a government now. He may have struck a behind-the-scenes deal with the opposition over the composition of his cabinet, as they will not receive their new powers enshrined in law for some time (if at all).

If this is so, then some form of coalition seems likely, which means making concessions to the hard left and risking further protests from the pro-marketeers at home, and more pressure from the IMF.

Ominously - from the latter's viewpoint - the Communists have their eye on the economics and agriculture ministries, where they will do what they can to restrict Russia's path to a market economy.

Whether the accord has any future or not, there are far larger currents at work.

For all his blustering about not resigning, Kremlin aides - including Mr Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana - seem to realise Mr Yeltsin is too isolated and too mentally enfeebled to chart a course through the current crisis, an economic crash which has shrivelled Russia's economy to less than the size of the Netherlands.

And even if the deal does survive the latest intrigues, no one yet knows what path Mr Chernomyrdin will take, in spite of his assurances that Russians are for market reform and democracy.

Nor do we know how hard the crisis will hit most Russians. For the latter, who have seen the rouble melt by 40 per cent in recent days, the sight of the men at the top bickering over who has how much power will look much like the sight of fiddlers against a burning Roman landscape.

What The Deal Aimed For

The main points of the proposed power-sharing deal:

Boris Yeltsin was to keep control of the crucial power ministries (foreign, interior, and defence) and the federal security services, and secure the return of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister, with his confirmation in parliament next week.

Parliament would get

the right to reject ministers proposed by the prime minister, giving it real political leverage. To have any meaning, this must mean changing the constitution - a complex legal process. It was also given a promise that it would not be dissolved by Boris Yeltsin until the end of its term late next year, and unspecified controls over state-run television and radio stations which, the Communists say, only represent the interests of "about 7 per cent" of the Russian population.

Viktor Chernomyrdin got the job as premier. He also became more independent from Mr Yeltsin, as he would now rely on parliament to approve most of his ministers. This distance from the Kremlin would help when he runs for president in two years time. He also secured an agreement from parliament that there will be no vote of "no confidence" in his government for a year.