Russia stumbled farther down memory lane last week, when Yevgeny Primakov, the 68-year-old foreign minister and Gorbachev-era foreign intelligence chief, was named prime minister. President Boris Yeltsin finally settled on Primakov after it became clear that the communist-dominated State Duma would vote down his choice to head a new government, Viktor Chernomyrdin, for a third and final time. The president, apparently, found himself caught between a rock and hard place over Chernomyrdin’s candidacy. The Duma was poised to activate impeachment proceedings against Yeltsin; according to Russia’s constitution, this would have blocked Yeltsin from dissolving the parliament and calling new elections in response to a third rejection of his candidate.

Moscow-based analysts report that the situation on Monday, September 7, the day Chernomyrdin withdrew his candidacy, came close to degenerating into a replay of October 1993 (or August 1991, depending on your sympathies). According to NTV television, the communists were prepared to take to the streets to resist the Duma’s dissolution, and had even sent emissaries into military garrisons. Given the level of deprivation and the potentially mutinous mood among servicemen, and Yeltsin’s overall unpopularity (a poll published in last week’s “Argumenty i Fakty” found that 73 percent of Russians think he should resign), the head of state was left with little choice but to find a compromise candidate.

Several such candidates were considered, among them Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who was reportedly backed by Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the president’s spokesman, and Andrei Kokoshin, secretary of Yeltsin’s advisory Security Council. Yeltsin apparently took offense at their attempt to foist the ambitious Moscow mayor on him, and both Yastrzhembsky and Kokoshin were fired.

In the end, Primakov, who denies having any presidential ambitions, got the nod. On September 11, his candidacy sailed through the Duma.

The former KGB spy-meister, previously known for his stalwart opposition to U.S. foreign policy initiatives and for singing duets with Secretary of State Madeline Albright, promptly picked Yuri Maslyukov, who once ran the Soviet Union’s central planning organ, to be his first deputy prime minister, in charge of economic policy. Just to drive the point home, Primakov also tapped Viktor Gerashchenko, who once headed of the Soviet Union’s Gosbank, to run monetary policy at the Central Bank of Russia. Gerashchenko was Yeltsin’s central banker until the fall of 1994, when he was fired after the infamous “Black Tuesday” ruble crash. Some Western leaders put the best possible face on Primakov’s accession. “Primakov stands high in my estimation,” German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told Bild am Sonntag. “He is certainly not the prototypical reformer but he takes small steps in the right direction.” Perhaps trying to allay Western fears, Primakov said in a television interview Sunday night (September 13) that he would continue to pursue “reforms,” while making them more “socially oriented” and protecting domestic industry. He also promised that the Communist Party would not dictate government policy.

Some of Russia’s best-known reformers, however, weren’t buying it. “The Communist Party is the governing party now,” former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov told RTR television. Economist Grigory Yavlinsky, who backed Primakov’s candidacy, said his Yabloko parliamentary faction would not serve in a government that included Maslyukov and Gerashchenko. Yabloko member Vladimir Lukin, the former ambassador to Washington who now heads the Duma’s international affairs committee, said Maslyukov’s appointment represented “a serious shift to the left.” Primakov himself said he would support a plan to shift constitutional powers away from President Yeltsin toward the parliament.

It is no surprise, then, that Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was in a confidant mood. Asked at a press conference whether the communists were ready to take power, he answered, “We are already in power.”