Russia deal on sharing power fails Communist Party, ultranationalists reject agreement

Country is left rudderless

5 Without support, Chernomyrdin unable to stem economic woes

August 31, 1998|By Will Englund and Kathy Lally | Will Englund and Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Trying to put aside their mutual loathing, negotiators from parliamentary factions and the executive branch thought late yesterday that they had reached a new power-sharing pact that would allow Russia at last to address its financial crisis. But as soon as their negotiations concluded, the agreement began to unravel.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov conferred with his faction's ruling council, then announced that his party could not support the deal and would not back the nomination of Viktor S. Chernomyrdin as prime minister.

"This document guarantees nothing to anyone," Zyuganov said.

He was soon joined in his denunciation by ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Their rejection may be a ploy to win further concessions, or it may be final -- but for now, Russia is rudderless.

Eight days have passed since President Boris N. Yeltsin fired the previous prime minister, Sergei V. Kiriyenko, and recalled Chernomyrdin to the post. But without parliamentary approval and without a Cabinet, Chernomyrdin has been able to do almost nothing to stem Russia's economic collapse. He had hoped to assume real power today with a favorable vote in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, but that won't happen without the Communists' assent.

"We cannot afford to lose time," Chernomyrdin said earlier yesterday. "The ruble is hanging by a thread."

The failure to reach an acceptable political agreement means more trouble for the battered ruble, more trouble for businesses, more certainty that the decline is not over, and more anxiety for ordinary Russians.

By torpedoing the agreement, the Communists have wasted a week's worth of work by the Duma at a critical time for Russia, said Alexander Shokhin, a Chernomyrdin ally. "This is the worst possible variant."

Although Shokhin and his colleagues in the faction Our Home is Russia had put an optimistic spin on the progress of the negotiations all weekend, it was clear that Chernomyrdin had an extremely delicate task to pull off.

He was offering new powers to parliament but knew he could push Yeltsin only so far. He had to speak out about not returning to the old Soviet economics to reassure the nation, as if he could pretend that a newly empowered parliament did not want to do exactly that. Chernomyrdin talked about protecting the free-market economy; the Communists were talking about gaining key economic Cabinet posts and rewriting Russia's loan agreements with the International Monetary Fund.

Chernomyrdin had to do all this with everyone fully aware that the current crisis was largely hatched during his first term as prime minister, from 1992 to last March.

"Mr. Chernomyrdin is an accomplice with Yeltsin in the destruction of the past five years," Zyuganov said.

The agreement reached yesterday included a pledge by both sides that Chernomyrdin's Cabinet could serve 18 months without presidential dismissal or a parliamentary vote of no confidence. It called for the introduction of constitutional amendments that would give parliament confirmation power over most Cabinet-level appointments. Now, only the prime minister must be approved.

It also called for the establishment of councils to monitor state-owned media outlets, which the Communists have seen as biased toward Yeltsin.

Originally, the leftist bloc in the Duma had offered Yeltsin immunity from prosecution and a pension if at any time he should step down -- provisions that Yeltsin rejected as unconstitutional, even as he declared Friday night that he intends to serve out his term.

The pact reached yesterday offered the Duma, for the first time, a serious role in the country's political life. But it fell far short of the sweeping transfer of powers that some Duma factions had been hoping for. It was not a thorough rewrite of the constitution.

The Communists had been demanding that one of their number be named interior minister. But in the end, that was one of four ministries that remained exempt from parliamentary control.

The Communists also wanted the ministries of finance, economy, agriculture and transport -- the last of which would have given them a chance to make trouble for Boris A. Berezovsky, the billionaire backer of Chernomyrdin who has a controlling stake in Aeroflot and is attempting a hostile takeover of another Russian airline, Transaero. But they extracted no promises from Chernomyrdin.

The draft agreement, said Zhirinovsky, depends entirely on "the goodwill of the participants, but it will blow up immediately as soon as one of the sides does not like something."

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