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Chernomyrdin Vote Postponed

Russian lawmakers postponed a Friday vote on approving the acting prime minister, avoiding a confrontation with President Boris Yeltsin as pressure mounted on the opposition parliament to compromise.

Lawmakers voted 294-54 to hold the vote Monday after parliament leaders said Yeltsin had called for more talks. The Duma, parliament's lower house, had been expected to reject acting Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for a second time.

The decision indicated the communists and their hard-line allies were no longer confident of winning their confrontation with Yeltsin and were looking for a way out.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov insisted his faction would never approve Chernomyrdin and would not agree to a compromise with Yeltsin. But the communists abstained from the vote, indicating their position might be crumbling.

"We are not going to vote for Viktor Stepanovich [Chernomyrdin]. We believe he won't be able to handle this job," Zyuganov said.

The dramatic turnabout came after Chernomyrdin's hopes of being approved received a boost Friday when the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Parliament, passed a non-binding motion 91-17 expressing confidence in the acting premier.

Earlier, Chernomyrdin outlined stringent measures to stabilize the economy, saying the government would impose an "economic dictatorship" to stem the crisis.

Yeltsin received news of the postponed vote calmly, "understanding that a longer pause for contemplation is better than haste," presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said.

In Washington, Deputy National Security Adviser James Steinberg said it was important to achieve "a consensus in Russia behind an effective program." But it is too soon to predict "whether this development could lead to that kind of consensus," he said.

The Duma's agreement to more talks with Yeltsin boosted Chernomyrdin's hopes of approval. Yeltsin still retains enormous power and had appeared to regain the political initiative in the past few days.

Russia has been plunged into crisis by the collapse of the ruble and a power struggle between the Duma and Yeltsin. Russians have been deeply worried, but there has been no sign of panic or unrest.

After Friday's postponement, a weekend of hectic closed-door talks was likely as the two sides looked for a compromise. Yeltsin invited political leaders to a roundtable in the Kremlin on Monday morning, hours before the delayed vote is scheduled to take place.

The Duma rejected Chernomyrdin last Monday in a first vote. His approval could ease the political instability in Russia, though it would not end the nation's economic distress.

The opposition says it will never approve Chernomyrdin, accusing him of creating many of the current problems during his previous five years in the job. Yeltsin has said he will accept no one else.

Earlier, Chernomyrdin outlined meaures to stem the crisis, saying the government would allow the ruble to float freely, letting market forces determine its value, and would press ahead with market reforms.

"Starting in January, the government will introduce an economic dictatorship - enterprises will be put in the conditions under which they will not be able to fail under their obligations," he told the Federation Council, which is composed of the country's regional governors.

The Federation Council vote to back Chernomyrdin was only symbolic, but may have increased pressure on the Duma to find a compromise. The Council governors have huge power in their regions and the vote signaled they would back Yeltsin in a showdown.

Last month, the ruble was trading at 6.2 to the dollar, or about 16 cents. Today, two days after the government said it was powerless to control the crashing currency, the U.S. dollar was close to 18 rubles in street trading.

Chernomyrdin warned that a quick solution to the political crisis must be found.

"It may be our last chance to build a normal economy in Russia. Yes, our actions will be unpopular. Everyone will assail us. But don't tie the government's hands, give us time to step back from the precipice," he said.

Chernomyrdin said his economic package would concentrate on meeting unpaid wages and pensions, closing down inefficient businesses, getting rid of dishonest managers and officials, and lowering taxes.

If the Duma again rejects Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin can propose him a third time or choose a new candidate. If the Duma votes no for a third time, Yeltsin can call new Duma elections.
Russia has been operating with an interim government since Yeltsin fired the previous prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, on Aug. 23.

Written by Barry Renfrew
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