Russia's rulers scrape past confidence vote

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The Russian government yesterday weathered its most serious challenge since gun battles in Moscow a year ago, narrowly surviving a no-confidence vote in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

The result showed both strong support for the opposition and stirrings of dissent among the government's own supporters.

Voting for the no-confidence motion were 193 MPs - well over half the 330 attending the session but short of the absolute majority of the Duma's total 450 seats. Only 54 voted against. Fifty-five abstained while another 30 left the hall early. 'When a government has only 11 per cent support in parliament this is terrible,' said Grigory Yavlinsky, a reformist leader who abstained. 'This is a clear lesson for the government. If you ask anyone on the street if they have confidence in the government they will say No.'

The main backing for the no-confidence vote came from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party and the Communists. But there was speculation they might be joined by the government's principal ally in parliament, the Russia's Choice bloc of the former prime minister Yegor Gaidar.

Reformists were angry over the replacement earlier in the day of the liberal agriculture minister, Viktor Khlystun, with Alexander Nazarchuk, a more conservative figure backed by the Communists. Several reformers either abstained or voted in favour of the no-confidence vote. A wholesale defection, however, was avoided.

Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, welcomed the appointment of a new agriculture minister but said more changes must follow. As champion of a new opposition strategy of parliamentary rather than street action, Mr Zyuganov played a major role in organising the no-confidence vote: 'This is a serious warning to the government and the Prime Minister,' he said, 'If they continue on this course they will all drown together.'

The government's most boisterous foe, the ultra-nationalist Mr Zhirinovsky, predicted a change of government within six months: 'Give up your power this year or you will be arrested next year.' He had earlier insisted the government would fall this autumn, But the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, dismissed calls for a change of direction. 'We cannot stall,' he said after the vote, 'We need a radical advance.' Mr Chernomyrdin, Prime Minister since December 1992, was last week reported to have resigned amid rumours of a rift with President Boris Yeltsin over the handling of Russia's 'Black Tuesday' rouble crash.

Yesterday, he seemed firmly back on board, appearing before parliament appealing for the no-confidence vote to be cancelled and outlining austere spending plans for next year. 'I don't promise a beautiful life in 1995,' he told the Duma in a sober address. 'The essence of the budget is not just to survive, not just to economise, not just to borrow from the population. The main thing is to create preconditions for future growth.'

It was a message that did not go down well with parliament, dominated by Communists, nationalists and waverers. The budget is designed to bring inflation down to between 1.5 and 2 per cent a month from about 7 per cent, but rebuffs pleas for more money from the military, directors of state industry and the collective farm lobby.

It upset veteran anti-communists such as Ella Pamfilova, a former social affairs minister, who argue for more spending on social service as the only way to prevent a backlash against reform. 'The current course is dangerous for democracy,' said Ms Pamfilova, who broke ranks with her Russia's Choice faction to vote for the no-confidence motion.