Communists and liberal reformers alike heaped criticism on President Boris Yeltsin yesterday for his handling of Russia's latest hostage crisis when the newly-elected State Duma met for the first time.
Underlining the pressure on Mr Yeltsin, his high-profile privatisation chief, Anatoly Chubais, yesterday resigned, putting a question-mark over the future of economic policy.
Comments from the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, that it would be better if Mr Yeltsin did not stand for a second term in June's presidential election were predictable. But the decision by the liberal Yabloko grouping to seek a vote of no-confidence in the government over the crisis in Pervomayskoye was a blow. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia bloc was counting on co-operation from Yabloko to restrain the Communists and nationalists in the new parliament.
Looking further ahead, many analysts believe Mr Yeltsin would only have a chance of winning the presidency again if the Yabloko leader, Grigory Yavlinksy, sacrificed his own presidential ambitions and supported him against Communist and nationalist candidates. But yesterday's outburst from Yabloko left little hope of that.
While Russian troops continued to battle with Chechen rebels in an attempt to free scores of hostages still trapped in Pervomayskoye, Yabloko declared the present Kremlin administration incapable. "Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin are dangerous for society, both with their action and their lack of action," it said in a written statement.
With only 45 deputies in the 450-seat Duma, Yabloko is far from the majority of 226 votes needed to carry a motion of no-confidence. But if the dominant Communists, with 158 seats, and some nationalists and independents backed the move, the government could be in trouble.
Mr Zyuganov did not commit himself to an immediate attack, however, saying only he would like to see Mr Yeltsin stepping down to give fresh politicians a chance in the election.
"It would be better for Boris Yeltsin and the whole country if Boris Yeltsin did not put himself forward for another term at the presidential election for health reasons," he said. Asked how the operation to free the hostages would affect Mr Yeltsin's election chances, the Communist leader said: "I think nothing can boost his chances because his policies have become completely bankrupt and collapsed."
Mr Yeltsin, who has only just returned to work after recovering from his second heart attack, has said he will announce next month whether he intends to stand.
In response to the Communist victory in December's parliamentary elections, he reshuffled the cabinet, dropping liberals, to make the government team less vulnerable to hardline criticism. Last night Mr Yeltsin accepted the resignation of the liberal First Deputy Prime Minister, Anatoly Chubais, which could mean a slowing down of the economic reforms he oversaw.
Mr Chubais, in remarks carried by Russian news agencies, said he felt Mr Yeltsin was unhappy with his work, and hoped that that situation was not prompted by "concessions to the Communists". His resignation will ring alarm bells with western investors.
More government heads may roll over the debacle in Pervomayskoye. But first the Russian army must complete the rescue operation it launched on Monday. Underestimating the Chechen rebels, Mr Yeltsin promised the storming would be over with minimum bloodshed the same day. But yesterday, with only 26 of the estimated 100 hostages released safely, crack troops had still to overcome the militants, being led by Salman Raduyev, a warlord related by marriage to the Chechen leader, General Dzhokhar Dudayev.
In what would be more bad news for the Kremlin if it was confirmed, 30 workers at an electricity-generating plant in the Chechen capital of Grozny were feared to have been taken hostage by rebels trying to help their comrades in Pervomayskoye by creating a diversion. But Tass news agency said another possibility was that the workers, who disappeared yesterday morning, had simply walked off the job after a row with the management.
In Pervomayskoye, on the border between Dagestan and Chechnya, the hostages were emerging in dribs and drabs. Some were rescued by Russian forces, others released by the gunmen who said they wanted them to tell the world the "truth" about how they had been treated.
The fate of the remaining hostages remains unknown. According to the Russian Interior Ministry, four federal soldiers have lost their lives while 60 rebels have been killed.Reuse content