Yeltsin deal points to PM's role for Gaidar

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TODAY the Russian Congress of People's Deputies will try, once again, to decide who should be prime minister. After a compromise deal between Boris Yeltsin and the Chairman of Parliament on Saturday, the chances are that the President's man, Yegor Gaidar, will be confirmed in the job and allowed to continue with his programme of economic reform.

Whereas Mr Gaidar was the only candidate when he was rejected by the conservative Congress last week, this time he must stand against a field of several other politicians. But Mr Yeltsin will have the right to choose the prime minister from the leading three - one of whom should be Mr Gaidar, given the fact that nearly half the assembly backed him in the previous vote. Even if Mr Gaidar is not made prime minister for a full term, Mr Yeltsin will still be able to re-appoint him as acting head of the cabinet until April.

The quid pro quo for this is that Mr Yeltsin has sacked his adviser, Gennady Burbulis - a former Marxist-Leninist philosopher from his home region of the Urals - whom the opposition described as 'odious'. Mr Yeltsin has also abandoned his plan to hold a referendum next month on dissolving the Congress of People's Deputies, a measure he announced last week in exasperation at what he saw as the assembly's constant attempts to obstruct him.

Mr Yeltsin and his arch-opponent, the parliamentary Chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, agreed during tense talks held under the auspices of the Constitutional Court, to hold a referendum instead on 11 April, when the people will be asked to decide on a new constitution. Parliament will word the question to be answered, but Mr Yeltsin must approve it.

Until April the parliament is not supposed to do anything to alter the present balance of power, which means that Congress must suspend certain amendments, which it adopted at the start of its session, curtailing Mr Yeltsin's powers.

The President was popularly elected in 1991 but other institutions - including Congress - date back to the Soviet period, which explains the enormous confusion in Russian politics at this stage of transition to full democracy.

After reaching the compromise deal, Mr Yeltsin said that it was not fruitful to debate who had yielded to whom. The main thing was that 'the people can live peacefully. There will be no collisions, no coups or other anti-constitutional actions'.

But inevitably, Moscow talk at the weekend was all about whether Mr Yeltsin had scored a victory or had been weakened by his deal with the Machiavellian Mr Khasbulatov. Some commentators thought the President was feeble to back down having so sharply rebuked the Congress and clearly set out to sweep it aside.

Others, however, said that, no matter how irritating and unpredictable the deputies were, and no matter by what undemocratic means they had got their seats, it was important for the future of democracy that Mr Yeltsin try to work with them instead of resorting to authoritarian habits in the name of reform.

Probably, in the end, Mr Yeltsin had no choice for, judging from the half-hearted support he received from the security and defence ministers, he probably realised that he could not reform Russia at a stroke and be sure of taking the former KGB and the army with him.