Congress deputies humiliate Yeltsin

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THEY CALL it the swamp - and yesterday the Congress of People's Deputies sucked in its most prominent victim to date: the Acting Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar.

After bubbling angrily for more than a week, Russia's supreme legislature rebuffed pleas for calm and rejected the 36-year-old economist at the forefront of Russia's bold, but increasingly queasy, march towards the free market. By voting against Mr Gaidar's confirmation in a secret ballot in the Great Kremlin Palace, the Congress lived up to its reputation as a morass of shifting loyalties and volatile personalities.

The vote sent the floundering government into a late-night crisis meeting and left its conservative foes exultant.

The Congress, elected in 1990 under Communism and dominated by hardline Communists and nationalists, has delivered a sharp vote of no confidence in Russia's reform process, which has pushed inflation to more than 2,000 per cent while cutting industrial output by over one-fifth this year. The real casualty, though, is perhaps less Mr Gaidar than President Boris Yeltsin, who must now decide whether to risk another vote or try to keep his protege in office until the next Congress in April.

For months, President Yeltsin has sought to avoid what happened by wooing a centrist bloc of voters grouped together in the Civic Union faction. But the strategy has failed. For, as one Civic Union leader, Arkady Vosky, admitted yesterday: 'Everyone votes for themselves.'

The defeat seems unlikely to topple the government but it will deepen a debilitating stalemate that has already sharply limited the government's room for manoeuvre and slowed progress towards the market-place. The Foreign Trade Minister, Pyotr Aven, said the vote would have a 'negative effect on everything'.

Despite earlier threats from reformist ministers to resign en masse in protest if Congress refused to endorse Mr Gaidar, there was no rush to jump ship. Mr Gaidar, speaking to reporters after his rejection, promised a reshuffle but said: 'I think the government should carry on calmly.'

Others, though, were in no mood for business-as-usual. Hundreds of hardline Communists gathered on the edge of Red Square last night to cheer deputies as they left the Kremlin.

The result - announced after a secret ballot in the Great Kremlin Palace where the Congress has been meeting for nine days - leaves Mr Yeltsin more vulnerable than at any point since he rallied opposition to last year's hardline coup.

It also leaves him looking tactically inept. He misjudged the mood of a Congress divided between 14 factions, often held together by personal rather than political loyalties. Many of his supporters, including Mr Gaidar, urged him to postpone the confirmation ballot until the next Congress session. But he pressed ahead, staking his political authority on being able to muster enough support for Mr Gaidar.

Compounding his humiliation is the fact that he offered significant concessions on the eve of the vote. In a desperate attempt to woo wavering members of the Congress, Mr Yeltsin on Tuesday yielded control of four key ministries: foreign, security, defence and interior.

The Congress pounced on the offer and yesterday passed a constitutional amendment granting Russia's smaller standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, a veto over nominations to the four ministries. When it voted on Mr Gaidar, though, it offered only a snub in return.

Mr Gaidar, putting a brave face on the defeat, said: 'The result of the vote is no surprise for us. We had no illusions about our popularity.' Appearing in the Great Kremlin Palace shortly before the ballot, he had pleaded for more time and tried to woo centrist deputies with promises of 'a considerable change in the priorities of the government's work'.