By a margin of only four votes, the 1,040-member Congress on Saturday threw out a constitutional amendment which would have transferred the job of appointing ministers from the President, who was directly elected by the people, to the parliament, which dates back to the semi-democratic Soviet period. Liberals had described the assembly's demand for power as a veiled coup attempt by Communists nostalgic for the certainties of centralised control.
The vote was too close for Mr Yeltsin to relax, however. Because a change to the constitution was being proposed on Saturday, the opposition needed a two-thirds majority to alter the status quo and it fell just short of that. But when the President nominates Mr Gaidar for the premiership today, as he has said he will do, he will need 51 per cent to get his man in and it seems he may not have that support. The Congress has already passed a resolution describing the government's performance as 'unsatisfactory' and 'contrary to the interests of the majority of Russian citizens' although it has stopped short of declaring no confidence in the cabinet.
'Yegor Gaidar can say goodbye to his dream of premiership,' said Oleg Rumyantsev, the author of a draft constitution for post- Communist Russia. 'I would not like to be in Gaidar's shoes on Monday,' said Sergei Baburin, a hardline Communist who regrets the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The youthful cabinet, which has been praised in the West for freeing prices and attempting to privatise state industry, said it would resign en masse if Mr Gaidar was not confirmed. The Prime Minister himself said that he was not prepared to accept any other cabinet post as that would 'not allow me to carry out reforms in the country effectively'.
Both Western and Russian businessmen are watching the Congress anxiously, fearing that a return to state intervention in the economy would make investment unattractive. But panic may be premature. Mr Yeltsin was reported to have been canvassing support from the industrialists' Civic Union over the weekend and a compromise might yet emerge whereby Mr Gaidar retains his job in exchange for the moderate opposition receiving some other portfolios.
The Congress has a record of being vociferous in its criticism of the reformers but of backing off at the last minute. In their hearts the deputies know that, while they may not like Mr Gaidar, very few of them could do his job. The political bankruptcy of the Communists was illustrated at the weekend when, after the Constitutional Court ruled last week that Mr Yeltsin's ban on the party should be lifted, two rival groups met to claim they were the heirs of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Both groups were dominated by pensioners.
Ordinary Russians, though struggling with hyperinflation, seem inclined to give Mr Gaidar the benefit of the doubt for a little longer because they fear the alternative would be chaos. Mikhail Grachkov, a 35-year-old repairman, said: 'In a sense I hope Gaidar stays because if he goes, they we'll just get some other idiot experimenting on us.'
The Party of Russian Communists which met in Moscow and the Russian Communist Workers Party which gathered in a Urals city each saw its grouping as the core of a Communist resurrection, Reuter reports.
The two groups - just two of a dozen parties registered in spite of Mr Yeltsin's ban last year - called for unity at their congresses. But each made it clear it would not surrender its independence to other groups. Anatoly Kryuchkov, chairman of the Party of Russian Communists, was quoted as saying a unification congress, planned by former Soviet Communist Party leaders for February, had little chance of success.Reuse content