AS President Boris Yeltsin ponders replacements for the top ministers he fired last week, Russian politicians and analysts hail his Cabinet reshuffle as a milestone on the country's path to democratic rule.
Whether the president will replace the men most involved in the Chechnya war with hawks or doves is still unclear. His appointment yesterday of sacked Interior Minister Viktor Yerin to a senior intelligence post suggests he still stands behind the men he was obliged to ditch.
But that Mr. Yeltsin bowed before parliamentary rage over the ''power ministers'' responsible for the Chechnya debacle, his decision to cooperate with parliament rather than combat it could be the most significant development in the long term.
''Our common, balanced position, our compromise, has shown the whole country that the federal center is capable of making responsible decisions,'' Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin told the Duma, the lower house of parliament on Saturday.
He spoke after deputies voted down a no-confidence vote in Mr. Chernomyrdin's government, backing away from a constitutional crisis. Yeltsin paved the way for that vote by firing Interior Minister Yerin, Intelligence Chief Sergei Stepashin, and Deputy Premier Nikolai Yegorov.
A kinder, gentler democracy
July 1, the day of the vote, ''marked the birth of Russian democracy,'' prominent political commentator Andranik Migranian wrote in the weekly Maya Gazeta yesterday.
''For the first time, the different branches of power acted not as corporations fighting to annihilate one another, but as partners interested in the preservation of political stability,'' he said.
That approach differed sharply from the way Yeltsin resolved his last major difference with parliament. In October 1993, he ordered Army tanks to fire on the parliament building and kept up the barrage until parliamentary leaders surrendered.
Other observers, though, see self-interest as a more powerful motive behind the ministerial reshuffle. ''In his heart, the president still favors a forceful solution to the crisis in Chechnya,'' suggests Alexander Belyayev, a reformist member of the upper house of parliament. ''He had to change his view because of military events and public opinion in the runup to elections, but it is a tactical, not a strategic decision.''
Duma elections are due in December. And even though talks are under way in the Chechen capital of Grozny to end the seven-month war, it is still not clear that the political pendulum in Moscow has swung definitively in favor of peace.
On the one hand, Chernomyrdin, who had always distanced himself from the prosecution of the brutal military campaign, has taken center stage in the negotiations, launched as part of a deal he brokered to win the release of hostages seized by Chechen guerrillas last month in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk.
Using the increased authority he earned through that success, the premier has seemed determined to press his advantage politically.
Responding to critics in the military who complained he should not have allowed the Chechen raiding party's leader, Shamil Basayev, to go free, Chernomyrdin was blunt in defending his position. The Budennovsk crisis, he said, ''can be seen as the starting point of a new political era. For almost the first time in Russia's history, the government put the lives of its citizens above political expediency.'' The presence of a senior and powerful leader in Moscow, working seriously for a peaceful end to the war in Chechnya, is certainly a major new factor offering hope for a solution.
But at the same time, ''there is still a danger that the government might surrender to the advice of those who want to go to the very end'' militarily, warns Ruslan Aushev, president of the republic of Ingushetia, next door to Chechnya.
''Of course there are hotheads in the military who see the world through rifle sights, and the whole process could still break down,'' he adds.
Whom to appoint?
Among the names being floated as the next interior minister is Anatoly Kulikov, a deputy minister who has commanded Russian troops in Chechnya for the past five months. His appointment would hardly send a signal that Moscow's policy on Chechnya had changed significantly.
''Yeltsin's problem,'' explains Mr. Belyayev, ''is that he needs someone who has been loyal to him [during his enthusiasm for the war] but who is not closely identified with the fighting.''
In sacking the ministers who took him to war, he showed that ''along with his usual image as a battering-ram politician, the president can offer an image of a flexible, multidimensional politician,'' wrote Mr. Migranian, the analyst.