Unruly Russian MPs sheath their sabres

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin yesterday backed away from an all-or-nothing showdown over his free-market reforms with Russia's conservative legislature, ducking a risky vote on the fate of his acting Prime Minister.

After a weekend of dramatic sabre- rattling in the Great Kremlin Palace, rival camps in Russia's unruly and unpredictable Congress of People's Deputies chose muddle over head-on confrontation. On Saturday, President Yeltsin came within a hair's breadth of a humiliating defeat when conservatives fell only four votes short of the two-thirds majority they needed to curb his powers to form a government.

Shaken by the strength of his opponents in the Congress, elected in 1990 and stacked with hardline Communists and belligerent nationalists, President Yeltsin yesterday dodged a further test of strength over the future of his acting Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar.

The question of whether Mr Gaidar - only 36 and loathed by many stodgy veterans - should stay on has crystallised the rival forces behind Russia's political deadlock. With Congress doing its best to slow reform and the government vowing to press on, there is every sign of continued political paralysis.

This is President Yeltsin's dilemma: he must either ignore, or possibly even dissolve, Congress - elected under Communism but still the closest thing Russia has to a democratically elected legislature - or risk having his government and its policies constantly undermined.

Having failed to secure a solid bloc of support within the Congress, the first option seems more likely. Despite a barrage of criticism against 'shock therapy' from the floor of the Great Kremlin Palace since last Tuesday, the government yesterday promised to expand perhaps the most important part of its economic programme - privatisation - to include land as well as industry.

Anatoly Chubais, deputy prime minister and architect of the world's most ambitious sell-off of state assets, said Moscow hoped to issue millions of new privatisation vouchers to cover land purchases. Every Russian is already entitled to a voucher that can be either sold or traded for shares in state firms due to be put on the market, starting next week.

The Congress, meanwhile, stuck to its more plodding approach, passing a constitutional amendment that merely reduces rather than lifts restrictions on land sales. Private plots can now be sold after five instead of 10 years. It approved an amendment deleting all references to the Soviet Union in Russia's constitution - a jerry- built document based on a slightly revised version of the old Soviet constitution. Rather than trying to win over the Congress, the government seems to have decided it must continue reform regardless, though back-room haggling continues in an attempt to woo centrist deputies.

On Sunday, the government had threatened to resign en masse if the Congress refused to endorse Mr Gaidar. By yesterday, though, the only person in any risk of losing his job seemed to be the author of the previous day's ultimatum. Mr Chubais, keen to prevent his privatisation programme from being destroyed by political pyrotechnics, said the government never intended to resign and had sacked its press officer for suggesting it did.

Alexander Shokin, another deputy prime minister, insisted the issue of Mr Gaidar's confirmation could well be put off indefinitely. 'There is every reason not to submit the question of the premier for discussion at the current congress,' he said.

Mr Gaidar's chances of securing formal endorsement seem slight. While conservatives fell just short of the two-thirds majority they needed to reduce President Yeltsin to a figurehead, they would need only a simple majority to block Mr Gaidar's confirmation.

Dodging a formal vote would deny Mr Gaidar the title of full - rather than merely acting - prime minister, but would avoid the risk of his being rejected outright. Under the muddled terms of Russia's constitution, Mr Gaidar can carry on at his post without formal approval.