Andrei Kozyrev, Russia's Western-leaning Foreign Minister, resigned yesterday. His departure had been widely predicted since the Communists, who accused him of selling out Moscow's interests, won the parliamentary elections in December.
Interfax news agency quoted sources close to Mr Kozyrev as saying he had sent a letter of resignation to President Boris Yeltsin. The minister said in his letter that he had decided to represent the voters of Murmansk, who elected him to a seat in the State Duma in the recent parliamentary elections.
The presidential press service said Mr Yeltsin had issued a decree releasing Mr Kozyrev. No successor was immediately named.
Moscow hastened to assure the world it would maintain a steady foreign policy. "Western countries should not regard the resignation of Andrei Kozyrev from the post of Foreign Minister as any kind of threat or as an indication of change in Russia's foreign policy," said Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Medvedev.
In the past, Russian cabinet ministers have lost their jobs only to be reinstated as part of the elaborate political game here. But this is most unlikely to happen in the case of Mr Kozyrev, who has been under pressure for months. Following the election, Mr Yeltsin must make some sacrifices in order to keep his reformist Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the key economic team around him.
Mr Kozyrev, relatively young at 44, had served Mr Yeltsin loyally since he became President in 1991. Pro-Western at heart, the Foreign Minister toughened his rhetoric to appease Communists and nationalists who began gaining influence in 1993.
But this was insufficient for the hardliners who saw him, in practice, co-operating with the West over such issues as bringing peace to the former Yugoslavia.
Last autumn, Mr Yeltsin made clear he would not hesitate to use Mr Kozyrev as a scapegoat if his own political survival depended on it. On the eve of an important presidential visit to France and the United States, he publicly humiliated the Foreign Minister by saying his job was on the line, only to reprieve him and take him on the trip at the last minute.
Mr Kozyrev saw the writing on the wall and stood in the parliamentary poll. Under the Russian political system, a deputy cannot also be a minister. Mr Kozyrev saw Mr Yeltsin a few days ago and evidently realised he had no hope of keeping his job at the Foreign Ministry.
Pressure from the hardliners clearly brought about Mr Kozyrev's downfall. But it is by no means certain Mr Yeltsin will choose a new foreign minister from the ranks of the Communists, now the biggest party in parliament, far less from the nationalists loyal to Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who form the third largest group in the Duma. Mr Zhirinovsky has put himself forward for the post, however.
The favourite for the job, Vladimir Lukin, comes from the liberal Yabloko grouping, whose support the government party, Our Home is Russia, is trying to win in order to keep the Communists and nationalists at bay.
Yesterday Mr Lukin, a former ambassador to the United States, welcomed Mr Kozyrev's resignation, saying it was a necessary development.