Yeltsin names his new Nationalities Minister

HELEN WOMACK

Moscow

President Boris Yeltsin yesterday appointed the man who has been representing Moscow at peace talks with the Chechens as Nationalities Minister. The Itar-Tass news agency said Vyacheslav Mikhailov would replace Nikolai Yegorov, who was made a scapegoat for the Kremlin's embarrassment when Chechen gunmen raided the southern Russian town of Budennovsk last month.

The sacked Interior Minister, Yiktor Yerin, has been made deputy head of foreign intelligence. That decision provoked derision from reformist deputies in parliament, who have long accused Mr Yerin of gross incompetence. A Yeltsin loyalist, he has no experiencein foreign intelligence work. He and the Security chief, Sergei Stephasin, both lost their jobs over the Budennovsk fiasco.

Observers are waiting to see whether hawks or doves are appointed to these positions. Only then will it be possible to judge whether Mr Yelstin has truly softened his policy over Chechnya.

Peace talks are due to resume today in Grozny. But prospects for a quick breakthrough dimmed as the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, emerging from consultations with Mr Yeltsin, said Russia was sticking to its position that the Caucasian region could not be granted independence. Mr Chernomyrdin set up the talks as part of a deal to end the Budennovsk standoff.

"The future status of Chechnya can be decided only on the basis of the Russian constitution," he said.

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