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Baptism of fire for the new PM

IMF quibbling brings Russia's financial crisis to boiling point and hands weapon to President's foes. Phil Reeves in Moscow reports
ONE month into one of the world's tougher jobs, Sergei Kiriyenko, above, the 35-year-old Prime Minister of Russia, is undergoing an initiation test that could easily destroy an official of twice his experience.

When he was appointed out of the blue by Boris Yeltsin, Moscow's political elite erupted with complaints that he was a provincial green horn, a former banker and refinery manager who lacked the experience to cope with Russia's plethora of economic problems.

Twice, the Russian parliament refused to confirm him, before finally caving in at the third and final confirmation hearing last month.

Since then, however, Mr Kiriyenko has found himself immersed in an economic maelstrom, with a teetering rouble, panicky markets and an economy battered by low oil prices and the Asia crisis.

Although he has won respect - particularly in the West - for being decisive and dynamic (neither of which were qualities of his predecessor, Victor Chernomyrdin), he has chalked up one big error.

He insisted on going ahead with this week's sell-off of the state oil giant Rosneft, despite complaints from potential buyers that the price was too high.

In the end, no one bid - delivering a serious blow to market confidence. His future will now depend on whether Russia survives its current crisis.

When he arrived in office, looking like an owlish schoolboy, he revealed that he likes dangerous passtimes. Just as well. He has got one now.