THE most predictable thing about Russian President Boris Yeltsin is his unpredictability.
In the latest unexpected twist, Mr. Yeltsin cut short his state-visit to China on Saturday, saying his adversaries were plotting to remove the remnants of his reform-minded government.
"They have begun too early to fight for portfolios, to pull apart the Cabinet, and so the boss must return to restore order," Yeltsin said before leaving China.
The battle lines center on so-called "core" ministers who have been retained, at least temporarily, by the new prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, a communist apparatchik who has a significantly different approach to reforms than his predecessor. The former prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, was the architect of Russia's radical market transformation plan.
Yeltsin says the core Cabinet members - Privatization Minister Anatoly Chubais, Economics Minister Andrei Nechayev, Foreign Trade Minister Pyotr Aven, and Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Shokhin - should remain in the government. He met with Mr. Chernomyrdin yesterday to discuss the formation of the new Cabinet.
During yesterday's meeting, the president and prime minister found common ground on the preservation of the government team. But comments by presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov hinted there still may be some reshuffling. "The basic current team will be preserved," Mr. Kostikov told Tass news agency. "The government maintains loyalty to the idea of reform."
However, some leaders of the centrist Civic Union political bloc, the main force behind Chernomyrdin, want a more wide-scale reshuffle than envisioned by the president. It was a statement on government changes made by Arkady Volsky, leader of the powerful centrist political bloc Civic Union, that apparently prompted Yeltsin's scramble back to Moscow in a bid to prevent opponents from presenting him with a fait accompli.
During a visit to Japan last week, Mr. Volsky outlined a plan of Civic Union-endorsed government changes in an interview with the Japanese news agency Kyodo. The proposed reshuffle included the appointment of economist Yevgeny Saburov to oversee economic policy, and the replacement of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev with Yuli Vorontsov, now Russian ambassador to the United Nations. Volsky also said the government should get rid of those ministers who "do not conform," apparently a reference to Mr. Aven a nd Mr. Nechayev. After Yeltsin's reaction, Volsky said he had been misquoted.
Civic Union leaders, particularly Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, have held lengthy discussions with Chernomyrdin on the future composition of the Cabinet, according to a Russian businessman closely connected to the government. The businessman added that he had received calls from two Civic Union leaders inquiring about possible interest in a Cabinet post.
The politically weakened president must contend not only with Civic Union, but also with Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, whose authority appears to be growing following the recently concluded Congress of People's Deputies. Mr. Khasbulatov has hinted that Chernomyrdin should dump the Gaidar core ministers, saying they would "put spokes in his wheels instead of helping him," the Interfax news agency reported.
Chernomyrdin has left no doubt he intends to alter the course of reforms. In the week since his appointment, the tight money policies of the old government have come under attack.
The parliament, for example, has approved an additional 200 billion rubles (about $480 million) to the beleaguered fuel and energy industry. In addition, Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko said the reimposition of exchange controls was being considered for the ruble, Tass said. The current exchange rate of about 416 rubles to the dollar does not "reflect the true value of the Russian currency," Gerashchenko said.