Leading Article: A black day in Moscow

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN appeared yesterday to be in full retreat in the face of the old guard that dominates the Russian Congress of People's Deputies. His unwilling nomination of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister, resulting in the resignation of the acting prime minister and chief economic reformer, Yegor Gaidar, looks like a fatal blow to his reform programme. Mr Chernomyrdin, a deputy prime minister in charge of energy, is an archetypal apparatchik from the military-industrial complex. There could be no more eloquent condemnation of his record than the huge majority of votes that he gained from an overwhelmingly conservative Congress.

In that context, yesterday's extraordinary speech at the Stockholm meeting of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe by the foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, Mr Yeltsin's senior remaining reformist ally, looks like a desperate effort to shock the West into some form of protest. The more likely effect of the day's developments will be to strike a further blow at Western confidence in Russia's reformability. The West can help only if a credible Russian leadership has a believable strategy for reform. Remove Mr Yeltsin's authority, and the West is likely to wash its hands and walk away.

In retrospect, it is painfully clear how badly the great gambler miscalculated in his challenge to Congress last week. Furious at its attacks on his government's policies, he accused his critics of launching a 'creeping coup' and announced that he would call a referendum to decide finally who should rule Russia: Congress or the President. Had he stuck to that strategy, he would at least have gained time, however doubtful the eventual rewards might have been. In the event, he seems to have decided that he had made a mistake.

After consultations with Congress, it was announced that the referendum - to be held in April - would instead be about the form of a new constitution; and Mr Yeltsin abandoned his insistence that Mr Gaidar had to be prime minister. The names of other candidates would also be submitted to Congress. The President even shook hands in front of the television cameras with the Speaker of the Congress, Ruslan Khasbulatov, his most effective adversary - a moment of humiliation. Congress has had its revenge. If Mr Yeltsin had initially been less confrontational, the outcome might have been much less disastrous. He now looks like a gambler who has lost his nerve.

But although temporarily down, he is far from out. He knows that Congress, stacked as it is with provincial party hacks and state farm and factory managers determined to defend their jobs, is far from representing the people. True, these reactionary forces have slowed down or sabotaged his reforms and helped to undermine his popularity. But if their nominees share some of the power, they will have to share the blame for the country's continuing economic woes.

Mr Yeltsin is resilient. He has been in worse spots before, for example when Mikhail Gorbachev was humiliating him publicly. As President, he has had the almost impossible task of creating a post-Communist world while handicapped by a constitution and Congress that reflect the old order. He must now devise a counter-strategy that will enable him to change both.