Chernomyrdin invokes fascist fears as he tries to secure support in Duma

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S ACTING premier, Viktor Chernomyrdin, made his most passionate appeal to date to be allowed to lead the government with an extraordinary television address last night in which he shouted and gesticulated, and which included pictures of neo-fascists making Nazi-style salutes.

The portly prime minister- designate - usually seen as a dull apparatchik - repeatedly waved his hands and glasses at the screen in a performance intended to secure his confirmation by the State Duma, or lower house, which is expected to vote later today.

His appearance was accompanied by a feature about a small Russian fascist group showing paramilitaries in black shirts and berets, with swastika- style insignias - scenes intended to recall the horrors of the war with Hitler. These are, palpably, scare tactics, intended to secure his election; although predictions abound of the rise of fascism in Russia, there is so far little evidence of it happening on a significant scale.

Today's events may depend on the outcome of round-table talks over a new power-sharing offer from the Kremlin to the Duma in the hope of securing Mr Chernomyrdin's appointment. But if he fails a second time, the President, Boris Yeltsin, may chose a different candidate for the third, final Duma vote.

"There is no classical way out of the situation in which Russia finds itself today," said Mr Chernomyrdin on NTV's Itogi, Russia's popular current affairs programme, in which he chastised Communist opponents, and vowed to pay pensions and back pay to millions. "We've already gone into such a tailspin that straightforward methods will not provide us with a way out."

Unusually, Mr Chernomyrdin, who was premier for nearly six years, took callers' question, dealing first-hand with complaints about the ravaged rouble and shrivelling pay packets.

While Moscow still struggles to form a government - after two weeks of limbo - the situation on the streets grows steadily worse, with rising prices and emptying shelves. Russia's dilemma has been deepened by concern that the federal centre's weak grip on outlying regions is being corroded by the crisis.

Mr Yeltsin has described Saturday's car bomb in the southern republic of Dagestan, in which 16 died and more than 80 were injured, as an "attack on the unity of the Russian federation", but there have been many other reminders of the fragility of the relationship that binds Moscow to Russia's regions.

Evidence that some of the 89 republics, regions and territories are using the chaos to seize local powers and restore Soviet-style practices has been steadily mounting since the crisis began last month. Yakutia republic, in the Far East, has decided to place its gold production under the control of local authorities, and to limit sales to the federal government and banks.

Alexei Lebed, governor of Khakassiya in Siberia - the brother of General Alexander Lebed - has been comparing Mr Yeltsin to "Ghengis Khan and Hitler", and has announced his region will no longer transfer any funds to Moscow. The general himself has imposed a price freeze in his region of Krasnoyarsk, banning increases of more than 10 per cent.

The governor of the Kuzbass, which produces half of Russia's coal, is threatening Moscow that miners will blockade rail lines across his turf if federal authorities fail to pay their five-month back-pay. Talk abounds of price controls, and one governor - in Saratov - has even mentioned introducing his own local currency.

Under the cover of the crisis, Tatarstan, a republic on the Volga river, has tried to protect local producers by slapping a 10 per cent import tax on flour from outside its borders -violating a federal constitutional clause defining Russia as one market. And in Voronezh, in the Red Belt part of southern Russia, city authorities have been seizing control of semi- privatised enterprises, such as the pharmacies, and returning them to government control.

Moscow's sway in the regions has always varied from strong to tenuous, but it was weakened last year when Mr Yeltsin lost the power to appoint governors, who are now all elected. Moscow often seems willing to let them go their own way, no matter how much corruption and illegality abounds, so long as they pay taxes and ensure their inhabitants support the Kremlin's favoured candidates at the ballot box.

Now, however, they are in danger of becoming even more remote, and even more cavalier about the constitution and distant hand of federal power.