MOSCOW -- The leaders of Russia's restive lower house of parliament began wavering yesterday in their determination to bring on a clash with the Cabinet of President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Russia had seemed to be plunging headlong into another full-blown political crisis, sparked by unhappiness over the handling of the Chechen War in general and of the Budyonnovsk hostage-taking in particular. The lower house, or Duma, voted no confidence in the government last week, and was prepared to confirm that vote this Saturday.
Mr. Yeltsin's growing ranks of opponents looked as though they had finally latched onto an issue with which they could move against him -- at least indirectly so, by attacking his government.
But it began to dawn on leaders of some of the factions this week that another vote of no confidence could only rebound against them. If it passed, Mr. Yeltsin could legally dismiss the parliament and call for new elections.
That would leave his foes not only out of their offices and stripped of their considerable perks, but also facing an electoral challenge against the suddenly popular Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, whose handling of the Budyonnovsk aftermath had taken them by surprise by being as adroit as everything that came before it was inept.
In fact, Mr. Chernomyrdin dared the Duma to consider another no-confidence vote.
Yesterday, the leaders of most of the parliamentary factions trooped in to see Mr. Yeltsin, and when they came out no one was talking about a vote against the government -- because the constitution leaves them very little room to maneuver.
"It is in the nature of politicians that they will not wish to lose all means of fighting before the elections," said the leader of the upper house of parliament, Vladimir Shumeiko, who did not attend the meeting. "If they pass a second vote of no confidence, the Duma itself will be dissolved, and the deputies will be deprived of their staffs, free trips, telephones and fax services before the elections. For them it will be tantamount to political suicide, and I don't know a single deputy who would agree to that."
The leaders had gone in to the meeting with Mr. Yeltsin needing some small concession, and the president reportedly promised them a Cabinet shuffle. It is not clear how specific he was. Generally, it is believed that Interior Minister Viktor Yerin and his deputy, Mikhail Yegorov, are likely to go. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev reportedly will stay.
Just to demonstrate his mastery over the Duma, Mr. Yeltsin said later that the changes could not take place before Saturday, when the no-confidence vote was scheduled, but could be expected sometime before July 22, a long three weeks away.
Mr. Yegorov told a news conference yesterday that he and Mr. Yerin made the decision to try to storm the hospital in Budyonnovsk, where Chechen fighters had taken 2,000 hostages. The assault ended in failure, with 20 people killed, and the Chechens were later allowed to leave for Grozny.
Mr. Yegorov was either defending himself or preparing to take the fall. He tried to suggest that Mr. Chernomyrdin had a hand in some of the decisions. The prime minister angrily disputed this later in the day.
But this still left the leaders of parliament "trying to figure out how to justify the change in their stance on the issue of no-confidence," as Yegor Gaidar, head of the Russia's Choice faction, said after yesterday's meeting with Mr. Yeltsin.
They will apparently try to argue that with the initial vote of no-confidence, they put the government on notice, secured a meeting with Mr. Yeltsin and wrung a concession from him.
What Mr. Gaidar and others may find particularly galling is that, with the Duma now safely backing away from a showdown, the Communists can pretend to be pure and will likely vote against the government, knowing that they will not have to face the consequences of success.