Yeltsin at bay over reforms: Peter Pringle in Moscow describes eerie parallels with last August's coup attempt as the Russian President fends off attacks by conservatives

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The Independent Online
AS THE anniversary of last August's failed putsch approaches, few, if any, believe another attempt to unseat the government is imminent, but rising opposition to Boris Yeltsin's radical reforms is accompanied by a growing list of eerie comparisons with last year's political turning-points.

Last year's 19 August plot against perestroika crept up on the Soviet Union. It began with Mikhail Gorbachev bowing to hardline pressure and taking conservatives into his cabinet. Expecting trouble, his liberal pro-Western foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, resigned just ahead of the crackdown in the Baltics, leaving the cabinet weighted in favour of the conservatives.

In May this year, Mr Yeltsin acknowledged the clamour against his radical economic reforms from right-wing industrialists and added three of them to his cabinet. More recently, the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, has been reported under great pressure from conservatives and might be on the point of resigning. He denies this, but should he go it would be a serious blow to Mr Yeltsin's chief economist and Acting Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar. Mr Kozyrev has been one of Mr Gaidar's main supporters and his absence would upset the balance between 'moderates' and 'hardliners' in the cabinet.

In the spring of last year Mr Gorbachev's conservative prime minister, Valentin Pavlov, warned of the destabilising effects of Western aid; so did the KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov.

Last month, after Mr Yeltsin's agreement with the IMF and the promise of Western aid, several leading conservatives warned that Russia was fast becoming a tool of Western capitalism, should resist taking Western aid and build up Russian industry instead. The last, and sternest, such warning came last week when the deputy chief of the new Russian defence staff, Mikhail Kolesnikov, said Western nations were double-crossing Russia over economic aid.

Last year the two giants of Russian politics, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, fought ferociously to the death. Two months before the August putsch, Mr Yeltsin, who became the first popularly elected leader in Russia, had reached the end of his limited tolerance of Mr Gorbachev's political machinations and was calling for the Soviet leader's resignation.

As yet there is no such opposition to Mr Yeltsin, but a strong contender to Mr Gaidar as Prime Minister has emerged. He is Arkady Volsky, the leader of Civic Union, the most powerful centrist coalition - including Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi - opposing Mr Yeltsin's radical reforms. A former senior Communist Party official in charge of industry, Mr Volsky predicted this week that Russia's economy was on the brink of failure and that unless Mr Yeltsin united the forces around him to relieve the 'unprecedented production slump and total impoverishment . . . there was a danger of a social explosion'.

In his efforts to keep the Communists quiet, Mr Gorbachev appointed a national security council packed with hardliners, including those who were eventually to join in the August plot against him.

Mr Yeltsin recently created a Russian security council, which is endowed with sweeping powers to set the political agenda and which contains two conservatives, Vice-President Rutskoi and the council's secretary and rising star in the Yeltsin cabinet, Yury Skokov, a former defence factory director. Both men attract support from those who would change the direction of Russia economic reforms.

By setting the agenda of the council's work, Mr Skokov will be influential in the Yeltsin government. Just how influential no one yet can tell, but the liberal Moscow News has already branded the formation of the council as Mr Yeltsin's 'quiet coup'. The paper commented: 'With one sweep of the pen, Mr Yeltsin has created something similar to the State Emergency Committee.' - the group set up by the August putsch-plotters to run the Soviet Union.

The new Russian central bank is not ready to extend easy credits to ailing industries that have accumulated huge debts, as earlier reports suggested, an aide to the bank's new chairman, Viktor Gerashchenko, said yesterday.