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Russian Lawmakers Refuse to Confirm Chernomyrdin as PM

By Richard C. Paddock
Los Angeles Times
MOSCOW

The struggle for power in Russia escalated Monday as legislators refused to confirm Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, President Boris N. Yeltsin's choice for prime minister, despite warnings that the country is on the brink of economic chaos.

The Duma, the lower house of parliament, voted a resounding 253-94 to reject the nomination of Chernomyrdin, who previously served for five years as Yeltsin's prime minister and presided over much of Russia's post-Soviet transformation.

Within hours, a defiant Yeltsin responded by renominating Chernomyrdin to the post, setting the stage for at least another week of high-stakes negotiations and another showdown in the Duma.

The president, confronted by ever-greater demands from Communists for a major role in a new government, further demonstrated his resolve by refusing to sign a power-sharing agreement that could have formed the basis for a coalition government.

"They voted Chernomyrdin down, and they did it with a bang too, hoping that it might make Yeltsin rethink his choice," said Igor M. Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies. "But it is not in the character of Yeltsin to retreat."

The inability of Yeltsin and the Communist-dominated Duma to forge a compromise leaves Russia without consensus on a program to revive its currency, the ruble, or to rescue the economy. If their battle continues over the next two weeks, Yeltsin could be compelled to dissolve parliament and rule temporarily by decree.

For Yeltsin, the defeat at the hands of the parliament was especially embarrassing because it came on the eve of a summit meeting with President Clinton, who will arrive in Moscow Tuesday for two days of talks.

While officials hold out little hope that a groundbreaking agreement will emerge from the summit, Clinton can offer his fellow president moral support and encouragement for his efforts to build democratic institutions and a market economy.

"What I want to do is go there and tell them that the easy thing to do is not the right thing to do," Clinton told students at a school in Herndon, Va., before his departure for Moscow. "The easy thing to do would be to try to go back to the way they did it before, and it's not possible."

Following Russia's decision two weeks ago to devalue the ruble and freeze some foreign debt payments, Yeltsin appeared politically crippled. Calls for him to resign mounted, and he fired Prime Minister Sergei V. Kiriyenko and his Cabinet after they had served less than five months in office.

With no economic program and few credible candidates to draw from, Yeltsin called back Chernomyrdin, the uncharismatic former prime minister who became wealthy during the early days of Russia's privatization but was credited by Yeltsin with maintaining the country's stability.

Sensing that the president was seriously weakened, the Communist opposition in the Duma began calling for formation of a coalition government.

As the ruble plummeted and banks collapsed, negotiators for Chernomyrdin and the Communists huddled for days behind closed doors, hammering out a power-sharing pact.

The negotiators agreed on a deal that would guarantee Cherno-myrdin's confirmation while giving some of the president's powers to parliament and the prime minister. But after the pact was sent to Yeltsin for his approval, the Communists abruptly backed out of the deal.

On Monday, they suddenly began demanding the right to name 10 ministers, including the interior minister, who oversees the country's police forces.

Taking the floor of the Duma, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called on the army and police agencies to prevent the dissolution of the parliament. And he warned that if his party's demands were ignored in the formation of a new government, there could be a popular revolt.