Baptism of fire for Russia's new prime minister

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's acting Prime Minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, scrambled to assemble a fresh government and to assert himself yesterday, meeting Russian opposition leaders and gearing up for his first foray on to the world stage in his new job.

A government spokesman said that Mr Kiriyenko, who was shoved blinking into the limelight on Monday when President Boris Yeltsin sacked the cabinet, would meet Jacques Chirac, President of France, and the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, when they arrive for a summit. The French and German leaders are due to meet President Yeltsin today,just outside Moscow.

It will be the first chance that Western leaders get to ask President Yeltsin face-to-face why he dumped his government, and in particular his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and why he put a little-known politician such as Mr Kiriyenko in charge.

The young technocrat, just 35, was given an early taste of high-stakes domestic politics yesterday when the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose party dominates the Duma, or lower house of parliament, said he would reject any government which failed to change economic course.

Mr Yeltsin, who said he wanted the new government to add vigour to Russian reforms but not to change course, was preparing for the summit at his own Gorky-9 residence yesterday. He sacked his government after returning from a week's illness.

Mr Kiriyenko has been given a week by Mr Yeltsin to put his team together. Yesterday he was meeting political leaders from the Duma, including Mr Zyuganov and Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of the liberal opposition Yabloko party.

Whether Mr Kiriyenko will be Mr Yeltsin's nominee as prime minister full- time is not yet clear, though several senior Kremlin figures have said that he is the strongest candidate.

But whoever Mr Yeltsin may want, he will still need the Duma to approve his choice.

Mr Zyuganov said he had asked Mr Kiriyenko about his plans but made it clear, for now at least, that he was not wholly convinced. "If the government persists in its course, we will not support any candidate," he said after the meeting, but added that this was not necessarily his final word.

President Yeltsin's leverage is that he can dissolve parliament if it rejects his candidate three times, forcing an early election that would probably wrong-foot some parties.

The signs are that many of the outgoing ministers will be retained in the new government, not least the defence minister, Igor Sergeyev, and the foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov.

The influential tycoon Boris Berezovsky has said that Mr Kiriyenko was an improvement. "Is he ready to become the prime minister? I think not," Mr Berezovsky said. "Can he become the prime minister? I think so."

Mr Kiriyenko, who told the Russian daily Izvestia that he found his elevation "very frightening", said Russia had to act fast to aid the economy, which has been severely hit by falling oil prices and rising wage arrears.