THERE was no disguising the pain and disappointment on Russian President Boris Yeltsin's face when he rose Monday before the Congress of People's Deputies to announce the withdrawal of his favored candidate for prime minister, reform architect Yegor Gaidar.
Mr. Yeltsin understands better than anyone else that Mr. Gaidar is one of the few in this country who has a confident grasp of the fundamentals of a market economy. In that sense, the economist's departure is a palpable loss for both the president and the country because he is virtually impossible to replace.
But Yeltsin's anguish is not only for the departure of his trusted aide. It is also for himself. From the start of the two-week-long Congress until its dramatic close, the president has watched his most precious asset, his aura of invincible leadership, visibly erode.
In the aftermath of the Congress, the focus of attention has already shifted from Gaidar to Yeltsin. Now the question at hand is whether Yeltsin too will fall from power in the months ahead.
"The Congress ended in a significant defeat of the president and a weakening of that feeble structure that the democrats managed to create in the aftermath of the August putsch," an unnamed Cabinet member told the liberal daily Izvestia. "If this process is not arrested, the next Congress of People's Deputies [in April] will bury the presidential form of government and restore the authoritarian regime."
Less dramatically, such predictions are echoed in Russian political circles. Andrei Golovin, a leader of the centrist Civic Union movement, suggested during the Congress that Yeltsin may not be president in a year. "He may go even sooner," he said.
The radical democrats who were Yeltsin's most reliable supporters are angrily denouncing him for deceiving them by dumping Gaidar at the last moment. "The Democratic Russia movement is bound to become an opposition to the president now," radical deputy Gleb Yakunin said. Democrats break away
Some prominent Democratic Russia figures, such as Social-Democratic Party leader Oleg Rumyantsev, have broken from the movement. Mr. Rumyantsev called the liberal alliance's policies "destructive" and added he now seeks to align himself with Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who emerged as a clear rival to Yeltsin at the Congress.
A Russian businessman who saw Mr. Gaidar after his departure from power reports that the young economist-politician had already received "hundreds of calls" from businessmen and others offering money and other support to form a new political party and to back Gaidar as a candidate for president. He adds that Gaidar is preparing to launch a new think tank, a process he interestingly began two months ago, from which he will no doubt rain his trenchant critiques upon his successor, conservative energy indus try boss Viktor Chernomyrdin.
There is no indication that Gaidar feels any bitterness toward his former boss. Indeed he has consented to advise Yeltsin, though not in an official role, the businessman says. But many of Gaidar's backers are not so charitable.
"Yeltsin has traded Gaidar for himself, in order to preserve his own power," Vitaly Tretiakov, editor of the liberal Nezavisimaya Gazeta, wrote yesterday.
"The main result was that we managed to maintain our reform course, despite great pressure from the conservative wing, not to allow a split between the two branches of power," Yeltsin reportedly told visiting German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on Tuesday. "Of course, both Congress and the president were obliged to make certain compromises, but in politics that is an ordinary occurrence," the official Itar-Tass news agency quoted him saying.
Some among the president's more radical backers are critical of his decision to compromise; they wanted him to go ahead with a confrontation with the Congress. The Congress, they say, is a holdover from the old Communist system, elected in 1990 as part of a structure of indirect democracy that preserved the power of the Communist Party.
These supporters are the 250 or so deputies who joined Yeltsin last week when he suddenly denounced the Congress after it rejected Gaidar's candidacy. Yeltsin suddenly was again the courageous populist, ready to go to the Russian people to dissolve the Congress. Yeltsin's mandate fades
But it did not take long for Yeltsin to face the reality that his popular support, his legitimacy as the only directly elected leader in Russian history, is no longer so sure a card.
Perhaps it was already clear later that afternoon when the president appeared before a hastily assembled crowd of auto workers at a Moscow plant to issue his call once again to go to the political barricades. The response was one of listless disinterest, followed by a growing outcry against needless political confrontation.
The main criticism of Yeltsin has not been his desire to seek compromise but his tactical blunders, his failure to make a good and timely deal. According to this view, Yeltsin held back early on from making a deal with centrist forces who favor a more gradual reform course, hoping he could tough it out at the Congress as he has done in the past.
As a result, Yeltsin lost the opportunity to save Gaidar. The centrist Civic Union bloc was ready to accept Gaidar as head of a new Cabinet that included some of their members, a deal that was openly discussed but suspended at the last minute before the Congress started.
"The blunder was made even earlier, when Yeltsin rejected the idea of coalition government which was to be created before the Congress and on the president's initiative," Mr. Tretiakov wrote. The centrists then deserted him, joining the hard-line camp of former Communists and extreme Russian nationalists, with parliament boss Ruslan Khasbulatov orchestrating everything.
Even after that, better deals could have been made, according to the anonymous Cabinet member interviewed by Izvestia. Gaidar told Yeltsin last week he was prepared to remain in a lesser post in the Cabinet, in charge of overall reform strategy, under a new prime minister. Without consulting Gaidar, Yeltsin put Mr. Chernomyrdin onto a short list of possible candidates, opening the door to the conservative Congress to overwhelmingly choose him.
"Yeltsin has suffered a major political defeat and for the most part, it is he who is to blame," Tretiakov concludes. Constitution issue
The consolation prize in this deal is said to be the agreement to hold a referendum in April on the basic principles of a new constitution. In theory, that should lead to the dissolution of the Congress and the standing parliament drawn from its ranks, the Supreme Soviet, as they are to be replaced by a new bicameral legislature. Constitutional commission head Rumyantsev predicts elections could be held in April 1994 if the constitution is passed.
But the final shape of the constitution is still to be determined in the Supreme Soviet, an institution that has not only gained in strength since the Congress but has also become more difficult for Yeltsin to manage. In the Congress's charged atmosphere, the standard rotation of 20 percent of the parliament's members resulted in a far more conservative composition than before.
Under these circumstances, Gaidar may be happy to sit on the sidelines in the coming months and watch Chernomyrdin grapple with the same set of unhappy political and economic choices that bedeviled him. Unfortunately for himself, President Yeltsin cannot afford that luxury.