SOVIET Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov's days are numbered. In a speech to parliament Sept. 11, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev disavowed Mr. Ryzhkov's gradualist economic reform plan and threw his support behind the radical blueprint of economist Stanislav Shatalin.
In response, Ryzhkov said he would resign if the Supreme Soviet (parliament) approves a reform program based mainly on Mr. Shatalin's ideas. The two plans are to be presented to parliament this week.
``I can exercise my functions only if I believe in what I'm doing,'' he said. ``If I don't believe in what I'm doing ... I won't have my hand in it.''
At the same time, the government of the Russian Republic set up a potential confrontation with the central authorities by voting on Sept. 11 to go ahead with the Shatalin plan, regardless of what the Soviet central government adopts.
``A very difficult situation could emerge,'' observed Ryzhkov, following Russia's decision.
It is far from certain that the Soviet Union will have an effective government to carry out a transition to a market economy. Even if Ryzhkov should leave office and a suitable replacement be found, the power of the central government is being continuously challenged from the republics that make up the country.
The Shatalin plan (also known as the 500-day program) would create a market economy by rapidly privatizing state property, lifting price controls, and granting broad economic powers to the republics.
Ryzhkov's rival plan urges a slower approach to the market with the center retaining control of most economic matters. Ryzhkov says the Shatalin plan won't do enough to protect the people from severe hardships during the transition period, such as massive unemployment.
Calls for Ryzhkov's removal have been voiced for some time, particularly by Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Republic's president. The main complaint against Ryzhkov is that he is too cautious regarding reform and is not a capable decisionmaker.
Mr. Gorbachev had been resisting pressure to get rid of Ryzhkov's government out of a sense of loyalty to his lieutenant.
On Sept. 11 he changed course. Gorbachev did, however, defend Ryzhkov's reputation, implying the prime minister should be allowed to make a graceful exit from the political stage.
``If someone proves incompetent, let's remove him, but in a normal fashion, not simply push him to the wall,'' Gorbachev said.
But some of Ryzhkov's fiercest critics are having second thoughts on his removal. Even Mr. Yeltsin is worried that a change of governments at this time could hurt the chances for radical reform, adding that Ryzhkov should stay on for the time being.
And although the prime minister is clearly unpopular with the majority of parliament members, the Supreme Soviet decided overwhelmingly on Sept. 11 not to hold a vote of confidence on the government.
``Even the best reform plan needs stability in the government if it's going to have a chance,'' said Supreme Soviet deputy Ivan Smorodin of Novgorod, southeast of Leningrad. ``Now is not the time to go changing governments.''
But Ryzhkov's effectiveness in carrying out the Shatalin plan is in question. He has lost the trust of many of his past supporters. Gorbachev, for example, did not tell Ryzhkov beforehand that he would announce his support for the Shatalin plan in parliament, the prime minister revealed at a Sept. 11 news conference.
If Ryzhkov does resign, there are no clear-cut candidates to replace him. However, many observers feel someone with a strong background in economics is a necessity.
Shatalin's name has been mentioned as a possible prime minister, but he is an academic by training with no government experience. Other possible candidates, according to the weekly journal Commersant, include economist Nikolai Petrakov; Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze; and Grigory Yavlinski, Yeltsin's economic adviser.
Regardless of who leads the government, the only way the nation can make a successful transition to the market is through unity, both friends and foes of the prime minister say.