MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin reversed course and moved immediately yesterday to fire three of his "power" ministers, despite promises Wednesday and Thursday to take his time deciding on a Cabinet reshuffle.
Mr. Yeltsin had apparently expected the Duma, or lower house of parliament, to put off a no-confidence vote in the government that had been scheduled for today, but faction leaders had vowed yesterday that the vote would go ahead.
They sharply criticized Mr. Yeltsin during the day for offering only vague promises of Cabinet-level changes. The president canceled a scheduled television address.
Instead, his office made the surprise announcement that Interior Minister Viktor Yerin, Federal Security Service chief Sergei Stepashin and Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Yegorov were all being fired.
The three ministers -- and the governor of the Stavropol region -- lost their jobs in the fallout from the bloody and humiliating hostage-taking in Budyonnovsk two weeks ago.
They had offered their resignations Thursday, but Mr. Yeltsin said then that he would not decide what to do until July 10.
Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said yesterday that the Budyonnovsk incident has launched a new political stage in Russia -- one in which government officials must accept responsibility for their actions, and in which people's lives must be taken into account.
Many innocent people died when Chechen fighters took over a (( military hospital in Budyonnovsk, and when Russian security forces under Mr. Yerin and Mr. Stepashin tried unsuccessfully to storm it.
"Those who are responsible for the fate of people should bear responsibility to the fullest extent," he said. "Budyonnovsk is our shame -- the shame of our country."
He said the eventual resolution of the crisis without further bloodshed, which in turn has led to direct peace talks between the Russians and Chechens, marks the first time in Russian history that the government has put the lives of its citizens above political considerations.
Mr. Chernomyrdin, emerging as the driving force in the Yeltsin government, spoke at a news conference with Vice President Al Gore.
At a time of acute political crisis here and growing anti-American sentiment, the two leaders glossed over several U.S.-Russian agreements they had reached that the American side particularly wanted.
Russia pledged to cut off further sales of conventional weapons to Iran, once current contracts are fulfilled, and it signed an agreement to restrict transfers of missile technology to other countries.
Also, less quietly, the two countries capped 10 years of talks and agreed to a $15 billion oil and gas development deal off Sakhalin Island in the Far East, one that will involve Exxon Corporation, a Japanese firm, and two Russian companies.
The two sides did not reach agreement on a proposed sale of a nuclear reactor to Iran, which the United States opposes. But Mr. Gore said the governments were listening to each other and would continue talking.
As soon as Mr. Chernomyrdin was finished in his meetings with Mr. Gore, he plunged into a closed Cabinet meeting that ran late into the evening. There was one topic of discussion -- today's no-confidence vote in the Duma.
On the surface it appears the no-confidence vote has little chance of passage. The Communists will be in favor, but other factions have generally decided a showdown can only mean early dismissal of parliament.
The Duma went on record against the government June 21, but a motion of no-confidence requires a second vote to be binding.
Most parliamentary leaders have predicted that the second vote today will fail. Yet, in addition to the Communists, the Russian Democratic Party deputies were also preparing to vote against the government, and the Agrarian Party leader, Mikhail Lapshin, hinted that his members might follow suit. This raised the possibility that the move could snowball beyond expectations.
What was not clear last night was whether Mr. Yeltsin had realized that his government's position was eroding faster than it appeared to be.