Russian hardliners claim another of Yeltsin's men

RUSSIA'S Foreign Trade Minister, Pyotr Aven, a young economist particularly disliked by the hardliners, resigned yesterday, reducing the core of reformers President Boris Yeltsin is hoping to keep in the government despite the loss of his prime minister, Yegor Gaidar.

A comment, attributed to Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, that Anatoly Chubais, the minister responsible for privatisation, would remain in the cabinet gave some hope that reform would continue.

The new Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the man preferred by the conservative Congress last week, was told by the President to be ready with the cabinet list yesterday, which he was. There would be 'no cardinal changes', he told reporters at the Russian parliament. But Mr Yeltsin, reported to be suffering from a cold, withdrew to his country house for final talks with ministers, and the announcement was delayed until today.

Mr Aven, 37, who had been Russia's chief negotiator in debt talks with the West, informed Mr Chernomyrdin that he would not be working with him in a one-sentence letter that seemed to express his disgust at the dropping of Mr Gaidar. 'I ask you to release me from ministerial duties, effective 22 December,' he said.

The Social Protection Minister, Ella Pamfilova, the only woman in the government and an outspoken critic of privileges for ministers, has already gone, having resigned on Monday. As for the other members of the team, the signs are conflicting.

Interfax news agency quoted what it called 'highly reliable sources' in the Russian government as saying the axe would also fall on the Deputy Prime Minister, Georgy Khizha, who has been a troubleshooter for Mr Yeltsin in Caucasian hot spots, and on Alexander Shokhin, another Deputy Prime Minister, responsible for employment. However, Mr Khizha's assistant said his boss would keep his job and Mr Shokhin himself said he had been offered a post which he intended to accept.

Mr Yeltsin's spokesman was quoted by Itar-Tass news agency as saying the President had seen Mr Shokhin and Mr Chubais. The latter was said to have agreed to serve in the new team together with Vladimir Shumeiko, a Deputy Prime Minister, and Boris Saltykov, the minister responsible for higher education and science.

The head of the government press bureau, Andrei Silantyev, said only two facts were known among all the rumours: first, that Ms Pamfilova's resignation had been accepted and second, that Mr Aven had offered his resignation. 'All other 'information' on the composition of the new cabinet is premature, since the composition will be approved by the President only tomorrow,' he said last night.

When the list is finally published it will be possible to predict the extent to which market reforms, launched by Mr Gaidar nearly a year ago, will continue. Mr Yeltsin flew home early from China last Saturday to make sure reformers were not sacrificed in his absence but there is continuing pressure from politicians in the Congress for a government that will strengthen the role of the state in the economy.