UNDERNEATH the twin banners of the red flag of the former Soviet Union and the white, black, and yellow tricolor of Czarist Russia, an alliance of former Communists and Russian nationalist extremists met Saturday to proclaim their readiness to seize power.
The self-proclaimed National Salvation Front, which claims a large number of members of the Russian Parliament among its leadership, derided the Russian government as "not a national government, but a Western government for Russia."
While the Front groups the hard-line opponents of the government, an even more powerful block of conservative centrists, including supporters of the government, is calling for formation of a coalition government that would significantly slow the pace of market economic reforms.
As opposition mounts, Russian President Boris Yeltsin is said to be readying a major reshuffle of his government that would remove many of the key architects of its radical policies.
Rumors and reports swept through the capital over the weekend of the imminent government change, including a report, later denied by the president's office, that a high-level meeting on Saturday discussed the removal of reform head and Acting Premier Yegor Gaidar. According to the independent Interfax news agency, he would be replaced by Yuri Skokov, an economist from the defense industry who currently heads the president's Security Council, a body of shadowy but growing power.
Rumors of such a shift have been in the air for months, but they have taken on a new urgency after last week, when President Yeltsin lost a crucial show-down with Parliament. He failed to get lawmakers to back off from a decision to call an early December meeting of the Congress of Peoples Deputies, the country's supreme legislature.
Yeltsin preferred to hold the meeting next spring, after the worst of the winter is passed and when a new draft constitution would finally be ready for passage. That constitution would solidify his powers as president, now granted only temporarily by the Congress, and would allow for new elections, key to ousting the alliance of former Communists and extreme nationalists who have successfully blocked many Yeltsin initiatives.
Instead Yeltsin faces a concerted move by the conservative bloc to strip him of his powers, which expire on Dec. 1 when the Congress convenes. Those powers, given in the wake of the failed hard-line coup of August 1991, give Yeltsin the right to pass legislation by decree, an instrument that has been crucial to almost all the radical economic reforms implemented this year.
Most observers give Yeltsin two options - to make concessions to his opponents or to go over their heads directly to the population, possibly with a national referendum on a new constitution and the calling of new elections. The latter course is favored by Yeltsin's supporters among the democratic movement, including Democratic Russia and the Movement for Democratic Reforms.
During the past year however, the president has resisted urgings to dissolve Parliament, not least because of the growing weakness of the democratic movement and the fear of an electoral backlash in the midst of the severe economic depression now hitting Russia. Instead, many analysts expect the president will opt for political compromise, something he has already done several times this year in face of earlier challenges to his policies.
"President Boris Yeltsin will soon have to renew his team fully or partially" to retain his powers, the respected Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented on Saturday. A variety of scenarios for such a "renewal" abound in political circles. The most extreme would be the removal of Acting Premier Gaidar, while a less serious course would see the removal of some of his closest aides and others considered too liberal in their views. Yet another variant would shift significant power to Mr. Skokov and the Security Counc il, which many already fear is becoming a new version of the old Soviet Politburo, a tight, secretive decision-making body.
The main beneficiary of such a coalition will not be the extremist National Salvation Front but the centrist grouping Civic Union, an alliance of four parliamentary factions including the Democratic Party of Russia, the Free Russia Party headed by Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, and Renewal, the party of state-run industry directors headed by Arkady Volsky, an aide to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The Civic Union proclaims its support for the government and its market reforms but is critic al of Gaidar's "shock therapy" policies.
Mr. Rutskoi, a former fighter pilot and Afghan war hero, makes no secret of his opposition to the Gaidar government. On Thursday, in a speech to workers in northern Russia, he assailed Gaidar's policies for "turning Russia into a garbage heap," and called for the removal of at least six Cabinet members.
The Gaidar team has fought back, accusing critics of trying to halt the tide of reform before it becomes irreversible and deprives the old Communist elite, the nomenklatura, of its power base in factories and on farms.
"Our opponents, from Communists to members of the Civic Union, are well aware that the development of the popular privatization program will mean an end to ... the rule of the nomenklatura in our country," Deputy Premier Anatoly Chubais, chairman of the privatization program, told a business meeting in St. Petersburg on Thursday.
The democratic bloc in Parliament warned Friday of the threat of a "halt to reforms" coming from the December Congress. Russia faces a return to totalitarianism, said Democratic Russia leader Mikhail Molostvov, coming from "the merger of the right and left opposition - former Communists and future fascists who make up the aggressive majority in the Parliament."
The Front has called for the resignation of Yeltsin and his government, assailing his market reforms for lowering living standards and turning Russia over to "criminals" and foreign business. In an open letter in the former Communist daily Pravda last week, it also blamed Yeltsin for the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Their appeals were taken seriously enough for Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev to announce the Army's support for Yeltsin on television Friday. "Some politicians," he said in a clear reference to the Front and its allies, "are unaware of the consequences - not just political, but in terms of force - which could result from whipping up such political passions."