MOSCOW -- Taking Russia and the world by surprise, economic reformer Yegor T. Gaidar resigned from the government yesterday, raising serious questions about President Boris N. Yeltsin's commitment to rapid reform.
Mr. Gaidar's departure was particularly jolting, coming just a scant day after President Clinton left Moscow full of promises from Mr. Yeltsin to pursue economic reforms faster than ever.
"I cannot be in the government and in the opposition at the same time," Mr. Gaidar said in a letter to Mr. Yeltsin, adding that recent government policy was damaging economic progress and wasting millions of dollars.
Mr. Gaidar, who to the West is Russia's most credible symbol of economic change, said he would pursue his policies as head of the Russia's Choice party in the Duma, the lower house of parliament.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Viktor L. Chernomyrdin quickly issued a statement asserting that reforms would proceed unabated.
"The government has been, is and shall remain a reformist one," said Valentin Sergeyev.
There were hints that Mr. Gaidar's decision to leave the job of first deputy prime minister in the new government Mr. Yeltsin is forming this week might actually be an attempt to strengthen his position.
"It is a tactical maneuver," said Alexander Shokhin, vice premier. "It is an attempt to establish a pro-Gaidar Cabinet, and his resignation is sort of an ultimatum."
Unfortunately, Mr. Shokhin said, Mr. Yeltsin does not react well to ultimatums.
Conservatives, predictably, were overjoyed by the announcement.
"Gaidar should have done it long ago," said Valentin Kuptsov, a Communist Party official. "After the elections, it became even clearer that he should resign, because his policy was totally turned down by the voters."
Mr. Gaidar's departure could become a deep political embarrassment for Mr. Clinton, who gave no indication while in Moscow that he knew that Mr. Gaidar would be leaving.
His top advisers repeatedly told reporters that Mr. Clinton had been assured reform would proceed at an even faster pace, and that the United States would firmly support Russia as long as it embraced reform.
Christopher voices calm
Speaking on television from Geneva, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher appeared unperturbed by Mr. Gaidar's sudden announcement.
"Mr. Gaidar, who is a very interesting, attractive person, was, after all, the head of a party that didn't do very well in the [Russian parliamentary] elections," Mr. Christopher said.
"So I wouldn't attribute undue significance to his leaving. There are other very strong reformers on President Yeltsin's team. and I think the important thing is President Yeltsin's commitment to reform, which he gave and reaffirmed to President Clinton."
Grigory Yavlinsky, an economist and reformer but political opponent of Mr. Gaidar, was not so sure.
"It's a change in political support," Mr. Yavlinsky said last night on a Russian news program. "The elections are over, the constitution was approved, Clinton has left. Now the decorations can be changed. The new government will be a Soviet kind of government. There will be no common course, there will be no responsibility."
From now on, Mr. Yavlinsky said, prospective members of the government wouldn't discuss policy before accepting an appointment. Instead, he said, they'll ask about the pay and whether a dacha, or villa, is included.
Mr. Yavlinsky, who drew up an economic plan for former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that was never put into effect, was put forth yesterday by Mr. Gaidar as a possible successor.
In announcing his decision, Mr. Gaidar appeared most disturbed about a government decision to spend $500 million to construct a new building for parliament.
The so-called White House, the most recent parliamentary home, is being restored at a cost of millions after a tank assault In October removed anti-reform legislators who took over the building for two weeks.
But Mr. Chernomyrdin has already moved in with an assortment of government offices, shuffling parliament off to cramped, temporary space.
Too much money?
Mr. Gaidar said the money earmarked for the new building was far more than was allocated for military conversion in all of 1993. He said the amount is one-fifth that budgeted for social needs, while government officials have complained they don't have the money to augment social services.
Social protection has emerged as a delicate political issue here ever since the election Dec. 12, which produced splits in the government over reform policy.
In the parliamentary election, Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, an ultra-nationalist who is a severe embarrassment to most Russians with his fascist rantings, won strong support from voters who have suffered from economic change.
During last week's summit, both Russian and U.S. officials said the proper response to the Zhirinovsky phenomenon is ever faster reform, bolstered by a strengthened social safety net.