A POLITICALLY weakened Russian President Boris Yeltsin offered yet another compromise to his opponents in the country's legislature Dec. 8 in a bid to keep reform architect Yegor Gaidar as prime minister.
After a heated early morning meeting with leaders of the parliament's various factions, where opposition to Mr. Gaidar was strongly voiced, President Yeltsin unexpectedly appeared at the Congress of People's Deputies to offer a deal. He proposed to yield to the standing parliament the right to approve nominees for key ministries, namely the defense, security, interior, and foreign ministers.
Yeltsin portrayed this as yet another attempt to reach a political compromise in the interest of stability. But even his staunchest supporters worried that by yielding to his opponents, the president's image as a strong, confident leader is rapidly waning.
"The Congress has sensed his weakness," radical democrat and rebel Russian Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin says. "People with a communist mentality have respect only for strength. When they believed in Yeltsin's victory, they were voting one way and now they are voting in the opposite way."
The vote on Gaidar has been postponed in an effort to gather support for him. But Yeltsin backers expressed concern that even with these concessions, the chances of victory were slim.
Yeltsin rose later to make a nominating speech strongly endorsing the economist, the man credited with engineering Russia's rapid shift from a socialist to a market economy. Gaidar, the president said, "is a courageous, dedicated, and simply intelligent man."
Yeltsin argued that Gaidar had learned from the mistakes of the past year, and that the government had become more "flexible" in its policies.
"A reform government is destined to make unpopular decisions, to work under great stress," he said. "Acute problems have forced Gaidar to immerse himself in the real life of enterprises, regions, and republics, to see and understand them from within."
Gaidar's continuation is key to winning support from the West, Yeltsin added. "For the rest of the world, Gaidar's appointment as head of government will provide a safeguard of Russia's advance along the road of reforms."
The brief address promised "personnel changes" in the Cabinet as well.
The latest power-sharing proposal from Yeltsin follows a week of political battles and setbacks at the winter session of the Congress, the country's highest legislature from which the standing parliament is drawn. The government barely managed Dec. 5 to block a two-thirds vote for a constitutional amendment that would have given parliament the power to approve all Cabinet appointments and to change the government structure.
Deputies described the Yeltsin move as a belated recognition of the power of his opponents. "This is very timely and wise move by the president," said centrist Social Democratic leader Oleg Rumyantsev. "The president is now starting to score points that he very seriously lost earlier."
But this latest concession may not be enough to save Gaidar.
In the halls of the Congress there was dissatisfaction with the proposal from all quarters.
Radical democrats were angered by what they saw as unnecessary compromises, particularly the likely sacrifice of liberal Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, one of the main targets of hard-line attacks in the past year. "This is a one-sided concession and nobody needs it," Democratic Russia leader Lev Ponomarev said.
Yeltsin had vowed to keep Mr. Kozyrev, but it is unlikely the parliament would approve him, even if the president renominates the young diplomat. "For me, Kozyrev, just as Gaidar, symbolizes a new policy for Russia," says Konstantin Borovoi, the businessman who heads the anticommunist Party of Economic Freedom.
The centrist factions, whose support is crucial and who have drifted away from the government during the Congress, were also not happy.
Vladimir Novikov, coordinator of the centrist Civic Union alliance, criticized the president's proposal as a ploy to keep all the economic ministries under his sole control. He said they would seek parliamentary approval for perhaps two economic ministers, particularly the minister of finance.
And the powerful bloc of former Communists and Russian nationalists, which has gained strength during the Congress, is still determined to oust Gaidar. "The prime minister is the key figure," said Ilya Konstantinov, the firebrand leader of the banned National Salvation Front. "The entire ideology of reforms depends on him."
The president may still retain Gaidar as an acting premier for another three months if the Congress does not approve him, Yeltsin aides say. But in the view of many observers, a great deal of damage has already been done.
"What matters is an irretrievable loss of the most precious component of his political capital," the influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper) commented Dec. 8, "the destruction of his strong-man image, his reputation as a super authority."