Yeltsin sacks leading opponents of reform: Further dismissals are expected in Russian President's continuing struggle against diehard conservatives

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IN HIS toughest move since winning the April referendum, Russia's President Boris Yeltsin yesterday carried out a threat to remove officials who are not wholeheartedly backing reform and sacked two of the most conservative men in his entourage. The national security chief, Yuri Skokov, and Georgy Khizha, a Deputy Prime Minister, returned to their offices after the extended May Day and Victory Day public holidays to find they had been 'transferred to other work' - Kremlin-speak for getting the axe.

The sackings came as no surprise. In a televised speech last week, Mr Yeltsin had said bluntly that 'those who do not share our aims should simply leave so as not to interfere with our work'. Mr Skokov, who had considerable power as secretary of the unelected Security Council, clearly fell into that category, since in March he had refused to back Mr Yeltsin in his power struggle with the Soviet-era parliament. Mr Khizha, responsible for Russia's military industry, was also known to have clashed with reformers in the cabinet on the issue of decentralising the economy.

Reformers are likely to be especially jubilant about the dismissal of Mr Skokov, 55, a shadowy figure who never gave interviews. On the Security Council, this veteran of the military-industrial complex was responsible for all security-related matters, and the ministers of defence, the interior and security had to take their lead from him. The Council, which is an inner cabinet answering only to Mr Yeltsin, has been much criticised by democrats, who say it is like the old, secretive Communist Party Politburo. It remains to be seen whether it will survive and, if so, who will head it.

More staff changes are almost certainly in the pipeline, both in Moscow and in the Russian provinces. But although Mr Yeltsin can humililate the man who represents the biggest thorn in his flesh, Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi, he cannot get rid of him since he was elected by the people.

Mr Yeltsin can be expected to appoint committed reformers to replace the officials he ousts. There has been speculation in Moscow about possible re-instatement for Yegor Gaidar, the young economist whom Mr Yeltsin was forced to drop as Prime Minister in December at the height of a conservative offensive. Mr Gaidar has dismissed such talk.

The President may reshuffle the government thoroughly, but this in itself will not propel Russia forward unless he can break the impasse with parliament, which refuses to accept that the 58.7 per cent vote of confidence in Mr Yeltsin in the referendum amounts to a clear mandate for him. To sideline the assembly, Mr Yeltsin needs to win the battle over Russia's new constitution.

Yesterday, meeting regional leaders for a second time since the poll, he increased the incentive for them to back him at the expense of parliament by promising that they could make up one of two chambers of a new assembly if they approved his constitutional plans for a strong presidency. 'I think that this gathering, in future, should be transformed into a Council of the Federation which will subsequently become one of the chambers of the future parliament,' he told them. However, the Soviet-era parliament is also wooing the regional leaders in the hope they will support its draft constitution giving less power to the executive branch of government.

The top leaders of Moldova and the separatist Slav enclave of Dnestr yesterday held their first peace talks in two and a half years of armed conflict. An agreement to set up a joint commission to explore a political solution was seen as an achievement.