Yeltsin stands by his prime minister as rumours persist

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin poured cold water yesterday on rumours that his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, would resign soon, but Russian politicians and news media continued to suggest that his days were numbered.

Mr Chernomyrdin, reported to be livid at the rumours, broke off a Black Sea holiday and returned to Moscow to handle the uproar.

'I have full confidence in Chernomyrdin,' Mr Yeltsin said at a Kremlin ceremony for foreign ambassadors. He described media reports that his Prime Minister was about to resign as 'a wild goose chase' and 'complete nonsense'.

Despite the denials, an atmosphere of crisis hung heavily over Russia's political scene. In 10 days, the country has experienced not just the furore over Mr Chernomyrdin but unparalleled turmoil in the currency markets and one of the worst acts of terrorism since the Soviet Union's collapse.

On Monday, an investigative journalist for the Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets was killed in his office by a bomb concealed in a briefcase that he had been led to believe contained sensitive military material. Dmitri Kholodov, had been investigating alleged corruption among Russian officers formerly stationed in east Germany. Mr Yeltsin denounced the murder as an example of 'increasingly frequent terrorist attacks on democratic journalists'.

The killing took place less than a week after the rouble crashed by 22 per cent against the dollar, only to rebound by 25 per cent two days later, after substantial Central Bank intervention. This prompted Mr Yeltsin to sack his acting finance minister and Central Bank chief.

He also set up a committee of inquiry into what his press spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, called an attempted 'financial coup'. The committee is led by Oleg Lobov, head of the secretive presidential Security Council, and Sergei Stepashin, who runs Russia's domestic intelligence service.

Such incidents have led some commentators to conclude that a period of political turbulence lies ahead. One year after Mr Yeltsin's forces shelled the former Soviet-era parliament into submission, his opponents are again smelling blood and even his supporters fear that he is losing political prestige and being driven on the defensive.

The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, came close this week to debating a motion criticising Mr Yeltsin's behaviour on foreign trips as 'not befitting the head of the Russian state'. This was prompted by the view that Mr Yeltsin drinks too much when abroad.

Liberals are concerned that Mr Yeltsin's erratic leadership, coupled with Russia's constant political feuds, are throwing the process of economic reform off course. Although Russia has a flourishing and expanding private sector, the economy is suffering from incoherent government policies that have caused a money supply boom and rising inflation.

The rumours about Mr Chernomyrdin surfaced partly because Mr Yeltsin is thought to be dissatisfied with the Prime Minister's handling of the economy. Mr Yeltsin's committee of inquiry into the rouble crisis is said to want to put some of the blame on Mr Chernomyrdin.

One parliamentary deputy, Sergei Stankevich, predicts that the Prime Minister will be pushed out of office in a few months. The business newspaper Kommersant commented yesterday that 'the President has enough objective reasons to force the premier to resign'.

Mr Chernomyrdin is a centrist who took office in December 1992 after the old parliament claimed the scalp of Yegor Gaidar, the architect of radical Russian reform. Until this week, he had amassed so much prestige that he was widely regarded as the favourite to succeed Mr Yeltsin as president