When the call came through, Gennady Seleznev, speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, recalls that he heard President Boris Yeltsin on the line, saying that his new prime minister would be Nikolai Aksyonenko, a little-known railway boss.
"My ears are clean today," Seleznev said after the call. "There's nothing wrong with the telephone line. It works clearly. The president named Aksyonenko to me."
But a short time later, Yeltsin gave the job to Sergei Stepashin, the interior minister. Aksyonenko was named first deputy instead. The two have been jousting for influence over the key government portfolios, part of a larger contest for money and power on the eve of Russia's campaigns for parliament and president.
As a result, Russia's fourth government in 14 months has gotten off to an exceedingly slow start and has offered no clear economic strategy. Moreover, the muddled outcome has left many shaking their heads about Yeltsin, who appears ever more impetuous, erratic and malleable. Seleznev, using an old Russian expression for confusion, chidingly observed: "The president's week has seven Fridays."
When Yeltsin announced that he had dumped Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister, he said he wanted more energetic reform efforts. But Primakov's departure had a different effect. A group of Kremlin favorites, including some presidential aides, Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and a tycoon, Boris Berezovsky -- all of them known here as "The Family" -- wasted no time putting their loyalists into the most lucrative government agencies. This group was behind Aksyonenko.
But they were in competition with another group spearheaded by Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russian privatization and now head of the electric power monopoly, who has his own channels of influence in Yeltsin's circle.
"From the very beginning, it was a double-headed government and a struggle between two clans," said political consultant Igor Bunin.
Berezovsky has again emerged as a power broker. Under investigation for financial dealings during Primakov's eight-month term, a warrant was issued for his arrest, then withdrawn.
Last week he was unabashed when asked about the latest Kremlin shake-up. "There was a struggle between influential business groups and political groups," he said. "I took part in that struggle."
Political sources said Aksyonenko's near-appointment reflected Berezovsky's lobbying of members of "The Family," including a former Yeltsin chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, and the current chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, who was once associated with a Berezovsky business.
The latest round of Kremlin intrigue has introduced a new face to the Russian public, Berezovsky's business partner, Roman Abramovich, who controls the Russian oil company Sibneft, reportedly with Berezovsky. Abramovich, a 33-year-old oil trader, has steadfastly remained out of the limelight in recent years. He was described as now exerting even more influence on Yeltsin's inner circle than Berezovsky, which Berezovsky disputes.
What struck many analysts was how swiftly Berezovsky and his allies moved to control Russia's most cash-rich agencies, including the Russian arms export company, which sells about $2.5 billion a year in weapons, and the state Customs service, which holds huge cash deposits.
"Their aim is to take under their control the key financial flows that go through the government," said Valery Solovei, a political analyst with the Gorbachev Foundation. "This is needed to ensure their financial interests and accumulate funds for the election campaign.
"The pie is getting smaller -- I mean, the national wealth -- and the number of eaters is not. And they start to elbow each other, pushing their own ways."
Thus, Aksyonenko immediately grabbed control of Russia's natural resource exporters, the military-industrial complex and the big industries. A new fuel and energy minister, Viktor Kalyuzhny, was installed, and he quickly restored a lost quota to enable Berezovsky's oil company, Sibneft, to buy Iraqi oil under the United Nations' program. Kalyuzhny also allowed that, as minister, he might take on managing the state's 37.5 percent stake in the Gazprom oil monopoly.
Handling huge amounts of government cash in such areas as defense, natural resources and transportation has often been lucrative for private financiers in Russia -- the government puts deposits in favorite banks, which then use the money in their operations.
Chubais also played a role in the latest power struggle. According to officials, when Yeltsin was on the verge of naming Aksyonenko, it was Chubais who rushed to Yeltsin and persuaded him that Stepashin would be better. Chubais repeatedly has gone out of his way to praise Stepashin, and fought to keep several centrist reformers, such as Mikhail Zadornov, from bolting the new government. But he lost a bid to have Zadornov remain at the Finance Ministry helm.
Berezovsky and Chubais are said to be keeping a wary eye on Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. A leading candidate for president, Luzhkov has been building a campaign organization, and in the past feuded with Berezovsky and Chubais. "The Family" in the Kremlin is said to want to make sure that Luzhkov does not become Yeltsin's successor, even though they do not seem to have an alternative.
All the jockeying has left Stepashin looking desperate to avoid being shoved aside. "I hold all the cards," he insisted.
"I think it's an exaggeration," said Solovei, the political analyst. "He is trying to put a good face on a bad business."