Yeltsin stuns MPs by dropping Gaidar: An apparatchik of the old order supplants a young radical - Russians are jittery following the President's nomination for prime minister

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SOMETHING strange is going on in Moscow. President Boris Yeltsin, the man who stood on a tank to defend his White House from coup plotters in 1991, prides himself on never backing down. But yesterday he astounded observers by dropping his preferred candidate for Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, and offering Congress a former Communist energy official as his nominee for the job of carrying on Russian reform. The conservative assembly was only too ready to endorse Viktor Chernomyrdin, who promised to keep working towards a free market but not at the expense of social welfare.

Had Mr Yeltsin shown even a hint that he might be prepared to change the government at an earlier stage of the Congress, commentators would have analysed the implications of any reshuffle for economic policy but have concluded that the President was firmly in charge. But the fact that he so doggedly stood by the young and radical Mr Gaidar made yesterday's volte-face bizarre and disturbing and raised the question of whether he had come under some unseen pressure, possibly from the army or the former KGB.

So enraged was Mr Yeltsin last Thursday that the Congress had refused to confirm Mr Gaidar, 36, in his post that he delivered the deputies a stern lecture on their obstructive behaviour and called for a referendum so that the people could decide on whether he or parliament ruled the country.

Speaking to workers at a Moscow car plant where he went to drum up support, he said: 'It is the first time in decades we have had such an intelligent Prime Minister. I cannot possibly entrust the government to anyone but Gaidar.'

After this it was surprising that Mr Yeltsin agreed to hold compromise talks with his arch-opponent, the parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, on Friday and Saturday. The deal which was announced seemed good for the President. Instead of a referendum on dissolving the Congress in January there would be a plebiscite on a new constitution in April. Mr Yeltsin would keep his powers and could nominate his prime minister from the top three candidates in a Congress ballot. Mr Gaidar was likely to come in this top three and even if Congress still would not endorse him, the President could make him acting premier until April.

Mr Gaidar did indeed come in the top three yesterday - third with 400 votes behind Mr Chernomyrdin with 621 votes and Yuri Skokov, a former military researcher who heads Mr Yeltsin's Security Council or inner cabinet, with 637 votes. This was Mr Yeltsin's chance to install his man, at least for the next four months, but he did not pick Mr Gaidar. Neither did he nominate the shadowy Mr Skokov, who would have been a very conservative choice, saying that he needed him to keep an eye on foreign affairs. Instead he nominated Mr Chernomyrdin, 54, regarded as a middle-of-the-road conservative close to the industrialists' lobby, Civic Union.

Radicals were horrified. The former Christian dissident, Gleb Yakunin, said the decision was a catastrophe for Russia and would undermine Western support for reforms. Foreign diplomats spoke of Mr Yeltsin caving in to the hardliners. His spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, said that while the President and Mr Gaidar had been 'a powerful tandem, they were in each other's hearts and souls', the Russian leader had had to take into consideration the balance of power in the Congress and country at large. 'I think in this complicated situation, Boris Nikolayevich (Yeltsin) managed to avoid the worst. Attempts were made to impose on him very difficult - from the point of view of reform - choices for candidates for prime minister.'

Does this mean that at some point after making his fighting speech on Thursday, Mr Yeltsin was threatened with possible overthrow if he did not slow the pace of reform? He looked glum coming out of the compromise talks with Mr Khasbulatov on Saturday. Perhaps there was another deal which was not made public. And the behaviour of the Security and Defence Ministers was not supportive of Mr Yeltsin. They said little but stayed in the hall with MPs after the President had called for a referendum and asked those who backed him to join him outside.

Muscovites have been talking nervously of a possible coup for days, something one should take with a pinch of salt. But twice last week and again yesterday a military helicopter circled low over the centre of the city, bringing back nasty memories of the choppers seen in the Moscow sky just before the hardline coup attempt in August 1991.

(Photograph omitted)