Russia's Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, yesterday delivered a fresh surprise to Moscow's army of Kremlin-watchers by announcing he had no plans to run for president in the new year's elections.
If he stands by his word, there will be disappointment in the West, where he has long been seen as one of the more acceptable successors to the ailing and sometimes erratic Boris Yeltsin. "I have not planned, and am not planning, to present my own candidacy for the election of presidency next year," Mr Chernomyrdin told Itar-Tass news agency.
He went out of his way to scotch reports that his relations with Mr Yeltsin had soured and that he may be destined for the chop. Nothing had come between himself and the President, he told Tass - and nothing would.
Mr Chernomyrdin, 57, has been seen as the front-runner for the Kremlin's top job for several years, even though his current chances of success are questionable, given the level of disaffection with the government among the electorate.
He heads the pro-Yeltsin centre-right electoral bloc Our Home is Russia, which has yet to attract much popular support; even Mr Yeltsin - who instigated the creation of the bloc - had conceded that it could fare badly in the elections for the State Duma (lower house) this December.
Although he is often widely portrayed as a colourless technocrat - he is a former head of the national gas monopoly - Mr Chernomyrdin's stock improved dramatically in June when he leapt into the international limelight by conducting televised telephone negotiations with Chechen rebels holding hundreds of Russians hostage in Budennovsk.
Mr Yeltsin was at an economic summit in Canada. The Prime Minister went on to survive a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the government.
Yesterday Mr Chernomyrdin's announcement was greeted with scepticism by some Russian political analysts who noted he had not expressly ruled out changing his mind. He has a reputation for being intensely ambitious; if Mr Yeltsin decides to drop out of the presidential race, the political landscape may seem far more inviting to the Prime Minister and his supporters.
n On the eve of a key hearing in the State Duma, the government's draft budget for next year met heavy criticism in both houses of parliament yesterday. The Federation Council, the upper chamber, approved a resolution calling for revision to the plan to boost social spending and subsidies for regions and industry.
"The draft 1996 budget continues the current policy of the Russian government, which has resulted in a drop in income for Russians in 1995 and increased social tension in several sectors and regions," the resolution read.The plan calls for cutting spending and boosting revenues in an effort to squeeze the deficit and bring down inflation.
The government is forecasting an average monthly inflation rate of 1.2 per cent next year, down from 6 to 7 per cent forecast for 1995.