Yeltsin's man rebuffed by Duma again

Russia in crisis: Nation is on the brink warns Chernomyrdin as rouble continues to fall and food becomes scarce
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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S AGONY deepened last night when the parliament thrust the country into yet another week of political limbo by defying Boris Yeltsin for a second time and rejecting Viktor Chernomyrdin as premier.

As the rouble fell still further, and food shortages turned from a painful memory into reality, the State Duma remained unmoved in its opposition to the acting prime minister, voting 273 to 138 against confirming him in office. Restless, hurting and unstable, Russia is entering a third week without a government.

President Yeltsin's parliamentary opponents were unimpressed by an appeal from Mr Chernomyrdin, who told the Duma that it is "the hours that count; we are on the edge, and could now lose time - and the country".

They were equally unimpressed by a revamped power-sharing offer outlined and signed in the hours before the vote by the debilitated Mr Yeltsin at a meeting with parliamentary leaders in the Kremlin. He said he was willing to review his premier's performance after six months. But it was not enough.

At the heart of this damaging deadlock is a crisis of trust; the parliamentary opposition does not believe the president. They want his offers - for instance, to change the constitution and allow parliament to vet cabinet appointments - to come with concrete guarantees. Mr Yeltsin cannot, legally, give them.

Efforts by the highly unpopular Mr Chernomyrdin - whose six years in office has tainted him deeply in the public eye - to win Russia round with an emotional television address on Sunday night failed embarrassingly.

Yesterday as he sat moodily in the Duma, sandwiched bet ween the interior and defence ministers, he had a loser's air, the look of a man who has played his last card. His address to the chamber was subdued, even weary at times.

He trotted out his economic plan: lower taxes; a balanced budget; back the rouble with hard currency reserves; nationalised alcohol production and so on, but he made little impact.

He hectored the opposition for carrying on "political intrigues" and for revelling in the worsening crisis. He appealed for an end to the "senseless and dangerous" battle between the branches of power. Again, all in vain.

Although his support rose by 44 votes against the first poll, he still suffered a crushing 135-vote defeat. Most of the new support came from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist party, the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Yeltsin now faces an extremely perilous calculation. There is one more vote to go on Mr Chernomyrdin in the Duma, which must take place within a week of his name being put forward again.

The President could nominate Mr Chernomyrdin again, take the contest down to the wire, and hope the Duma places self-preservation above principle and caves in.

That is what happened in April, when it confirmed Sergei Kiriyenko on the final vote.

But that was then. The roulette wheel was still spinning merrily in the treasury-bill market; the rouble was stable. Russia today is in far, far bigger trouble.

Or Mr Yeltsin could give in, lose face, deliver his hated parliamentary foes their most spectacular victory to date and nominate another candidate.

Neither course will be easy for the President. The risk of the first option is that the Duma stands firm, and throws out Mr Chernomyrdin out again.

The Russian constitution says that parliament must then be dissolved, but the chamber could prolong its life, under a clause banning its dissolution if impeachment proceedings are under way.

This could lay the ground for a volatile stand-off between the Kremlin and parliament, with echoes of October 1993 when President Yeltsin used tanks to bomb a rebellious legislature.

If the Duma is dissolved, the President has the right to appoint Viktor Chernomyrdin with no further ado, and get on with creating a government to run the country

But that path has its dangers, too. After his six years in office, the acting prime minister's name is seen by millions as a synonym for high-level corruption, failed privatisation, hyper-inflation, worsening living standards and an empire lost.

Foisting him on a Russia that is growing progressively poorer and more unstable is playing with fire. That much even President Yeltsin, in his isolated state, must realise. He also knows that the next Duma, which must be elected with four months of dissolution, will be even more hostile.

It cannot be dissolved in its first year, and could throw out the government with two successive "no confidence" votes.

In general, backing down, and nominating a second choice, is against Mr Yeltsin's instincts. He hates losing, and tends to become more inflexible as opposition against him hardens - a characteristic which has produced disastrous results, particularly in the Chechen war. Handing a victory to the Communists in parliament - the party he once smashed, and sought vainly to ban - would stick in his craw.

But, unlike the crisis of 1993, he has this time twice demonstrated that he is willing to bargain; a show-down with the Duma could mean being without a government - or at least one recognised by the Duma - for weeks, if not months.

In the end, much depends on his erratic personality and that, in these combustible times is not a happy thought.