THE seating arrangement at a news conference attended by many Russian ministers revealed more about the future direction of economic reforms than did the actual statements by government leaders.
Grouped in the center of a long conference table were recent appointees who oppose rapid economic reforms, ministers such as Vice Premier Vladimir Shumeiko. Seated on the fringes were those who advocate a faster transition to a market economy, such as Privatization Minister Anatoly Chubais and Economic Minister Andrei Nechayev.
It was a picture that resembled bygone images of the Communist era - those of the lineup atop Lenin's mausoleum on parade days. Kremlinologists used to rely on that lineup to provide clues as to who was winning and losing Kremlin power struggles.
In somewhat the same way, the seating arrangement at Friday's news conference gave political observers a clear indication that the so-called nationalist-conservatives are gaining the upper hand in the struggle for influence over Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the course of economic reforms. Conservative challenge
Signs of fierce factional infighting within the Russian government have appeared over the past few weeks, accompanying the conservative's rise in influence. The power struggle recently has focused on the fate of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, one of the leading progressives in the Cabinet. Mr. Kozyrev has been bitterly criticized by conservatives, who allege the foreign minister is selling out Russia's interests to the West.
Recent media speculation in the Russian capital had predicted Mr. Kozyrev's imminent resignation. But Friday, Mr. Yeltsin and Information Minister Mikhail Poltaranin, a close confidant of the president, moved to squash the rumors, saying there were no plans to drop the foreign minister.
"He is flourishing and will continue to do so," Mr. Poltaranin said of Kozyrev.
Despite the show of support by Yeltsin, some political observers, including Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of the liberal Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, say Kozyrev's days are numbered.
Backed by popular discontent over economic woes, conservatives are moving to reverse the tight-money course pursued by acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's government since reforms were launched in January.
In recent weeks, for example, the government's credit policy has been loosened to help revive Russia's stagnating industry. Despite this policy shift, Mr. Gaidar has said reforms remain on course.
The conservative drive against Kozyrev, however, could signal an attempt at a complete overhaul of reforms, Mr. Tretyakov warns.
"His removal could shatter the fragile balance between political forces inside the Russian leadership, and consequently, [the balance] in society," Tretyakov wrote in a commentary Friday. Kozyrev's departure would deprive Gaidar of a key Cabinet ally in the battle to overcome conservative opposition, he adds.
Some Western diplomats do not share the same alarm voiced by the Nezavisimaya Gazeta commentary, saying Kozyrev's departure would have little effect on the debate over Russia's domestic policies.
Ultimately, the course of reforms depends almost entirely on Yeltsin, many Western diplomats say. He is facing increasing pressure to drift to the conservative side. For example, a poll published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta last week showed Yeltsin's popularity rating has dropped below that of his conservative deputy, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi.
So far, Yeltsin has remained a firm supporter of Gaidar and his policies. But many liberal leaders fear that Yeltsin could easily forsake the radical-reform cause in order to solidify his own position.
At a meeting with the president Saturday, leaders of the liberal political group, the Reform Coalition, said they were encouraged by assurances made by Yeltsin that progressives soon would be appointed to senior positions in the Defense, Interior, and Security ministries. Those ministries are largely controlled by conservative opponents to Gaidar's policies, the liberals say.
At the same time, however, Reform Coalition heads failed to win a pledge of support from Yeltsin for their movement - a possible indication that the president's commitment to radical reform is shaky.
"The president stressed that he viewed himself as the representative of the whole nation, and in this capacity would not like to link himself to any political movement," said coalition leader Viktor Sheinis. Yeltsin shifts
Meanwhile, Yeltsin over the weekend moved to ease the deepening economic crisis in Russia, ordering oil companies to make 40 percent of their output available to the agricultural sector. The action was needed to prevent fuel shortages from hindering efforts to bring in the harvest, the Tass news agency said. The president also instructed banks to make loans available to enterprises in the Russian north, an area hit hard by the country's industrial collapse.