Yeltsin reshuffle ends with pledge to stand by reforms

Boris Yeltsin yesterday declared that his government reshuffle was more or less complete, after a turbulent few weeks in which he has lurched towards the hardline camp and given his supporters at home and abroad a nasty dose of the jitters.

The President also reiterated his commitment to reforms - a move clearly intended to soothe international concern about the purge of top liberals from his administration and his attempt to use force to crush Chechen rebels in Dagestan. And he was jubilant about Russia's acceptance on Thursday into the Council of Europe.

However, with only five months to go before a presidential election, he seems to be shifting his definition of reform in the hope of winning over the millions of impoverished Russians who, denied the fruits of the emerging free market, have turned to the Communists and ultra-nationalists.

The Boris Yeltsin of 1996 no longer talks of anti-inflationary policies, but waxes lyrical about spending on social issues. Take the last few days: he has agreed to pay more than $4.5bn (pounds 2.9bn) to Chechnya; ordered an increase in pensions and student grants, and declared that a "President's social fund" would be set up to cover government workers' salaries if their wages were delayed.

Yesterday - despite reports that Russia's new strategy could jeopardise a $9bn loan from the International Monetary Fund - there was more of the same: "The most important task is ... protection of the social and economic rights of the people," Mr Yeltsin told a meeting of regional officials.

Meanwhile, the President defended his government purge by saying that it was "dictated by conditions". As part of this process, he has thrown overboard his chief economics strategist, Anatoly Chubais, his chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, and the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev. These changes have coincided with rumblings from Russia about a shift of focus away from the West and towards the East, principally India, China and Iran.

But there were signs yesterday that the recent friction with Washington, which was particularly alarmed by the sackings, was beginning to ease. After initially turning down an invitation to Moscow from Russia's new Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, has agreed to a private meeting with him in Helsinki on 10 and 11 February, followed by an official visit to Moscow in March.