Yeltsin fights to put cabinet back together again

BORIS YELTSIN's lonely quest to persuade parliament to accept his green-horn nomination for prime minister entered its third week yesterday with few signs that a swift end is near to the limbo that has engulfed the Russian government.

The beleaguered president can never have expected to emerge from yesterday's carefully orchestrated meeting with his parliamentary foes with any concrete triumph, but he will have hoped to make more headway than he actually managed.

The key players left the encounter sounding unimpressed by Mr Yeltsin's efforts to cajole them into supporting the 35-year-old ex-provincial banker and (briefly) former energy minister, Sergei Kiriyenko. His nomination goes to the vote in the State Duma, or lower house, on Friday.

Mr Yeltsin invited them to the Kremlin with promises that he would listen. But even in his hour of need he made sure it was his show. Reporters and camera crews were allowed to cover his monologue, in which he called for a government of "business-minded people", talked of making 1998 a year of "non- confrontation" in politics, but repeated his opposition to a coalition government.

He complained Russia has spent two weeks without a government following his sudden, and - as it turns out - highly disruptive decision to fire Viktor Chernomyrdin and his administration. "It is very serious, of course. If it continues, we will lose out even more," he said.

While he allowed himself 20 minutes to browbeat the gathering of several dozen party, trade-union and regional leaders, others were kept on a tighter leash. As soon as he and his close ally, Yegor Stroyev, speaker of the upper house, had finished talking, the press was ushered out. Everyone else was allocated five minutes each.

The timing of the meeting not only reflects Mr Yeltsin's anxiety to put the government back together again. Tomorrow sees a day of protests and marches over Russia's huge wages arrears; Mr Yeltsin was evidently keen to appear to have tried to mend some bridges beforehand. However, he did not get very far. Afterwards, Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, which holds 138 of the Duma's 450 seats, said Mr Kiriyenko's candidacy was unlikely to be approved.

Mr Zyuganov's party, the largest in parliament, has been particularly strong in its criticism of Mr Kiriyenko, who favours market reforms. The liberal Yabloko party (45 seats) is also opposing him. So far, outright support has come only from the Liberal Democrats (51). The pro-government Our Home is Russia has yet to decide which way to vote.

Mr Kiriyenko's chances of being confirmed at the first attempt look weak, although it is not impossible. If the Duma rejects him three times, parliament must be dissolved and elections held. It is unlikelymany of theelite at yesterday's meeting truly want to go before the electorate before it is absolutely necessary, but the bartering process may go down to the wire - leaving Russia lost and rudderless for more days yet.