Man for one season runs out of time

Russian crisis: After four months of grappling with dire economic problems, Sergei Kiriyenko departs

BORIS YELTSIN'S sacking of his prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, ended a career that was both astonishingly brief, even by the standards of this politically unstable land, and blighted by inexperience, noisy enemies and pure bad luck. His departure is likely to draw groans in the West, despite efforts by the White House to say President Bill Clinton had anticipated Mr Yeltsin's shake-up, adding, implausibly, that "it is policies and not personalities that matter" to the US.

Until close to the end, Mr Kiriyenko was seen in the West as reasonably competent and literate in the theories of market economics. Shortly after his arrival in office, diplomats began to describe his government as the most energetic and reform-orientated to date. Their previous loyalty to Viktor Chernomyrdin melted treacherously away, with mutterings that he belonged to the old crony-riddled, favour-trading school of the Soviet Union.

With Mr Chernomyrdin's unexpected return to the prime minister's office, we can expect another change of tune. But the truth is that both the young man and his replacement aremore pragmatists than ideologues. Mr Kiriyenko is one of a breed of clever young opportunists who spotted fortunes to be made, and business empires to be built, when Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the bonds of the Communist state and the Soviet Union.

At a shipyard in Gorky (later Nizhny Novgorod) where he was a foreman engineer, he became a regional leader of the Communist youth organisation, seen as a training ground for aspiring party leaders. The same instinct can perhaps be detected behind a decision, in his childhood, to change his Jewish surname; being half-Jewish in this anti-Semitic country is not the best recipe for success. He moved on quickly to found a bank, run an oil business, and - critically - to build a friendship with the glamorous young local governor, Boris Nemtsov, later to become a top minister.

That helped Mr Kiriyenko make his all-important move to Moscow, initially as a junior minister of the Ministry of Fuel and Energy, and eventually as boss. In March, looking like a slightly bewildered class swot, he was thrust into the limelight by Mr Yeltsin as his nominee for prime minister, with instructions to breathe life into Russia's moribund reform process.

The world was amazed; some observers suspected that, after a lifetime of drink and heart trouble, "Tsar Boris" was losing his grip (speculation that we can expect to revive after last night's decision). Most of the political opposition was hostile. Mr Kiriyenko was 35, and looked every bit as green as his CV implied. Luck was not on his side during his four months at the helm. He initially won fans at home and abroad, impressed by the way he handled a three-round confirmation process before a truculent parliament in April.

He remained largely above partisan sniping, and began to look like the professional manager he claimed to be. Some newspapers began to refer to him by using his nickname - "the little computer".

But it was not long before the immensity of Russia's problems - aggravated by external factors such as the low oil price and the Asian crisis - began to engulf him.

Miners blocked the Trans-Siberian railway, demanding unpaid wages; nuclear scientists marched on Moscow. The volume of protest grew louder, even though widespread unrest remained unlikely.

Mr Kiriyenko began, at times, to have a little-boy-lost air. Faced with a budget deficit, the intolerably heavy burden of short-term debt and - as a consequence - a tottering rouble, he turned again to the International Monetary Fund.

A $23bn (pounds 14.3bn) rescue package was crafted, partly conditional on the passage of an austerity programme through parliament.

But the State Duma, or lower house, dragged its feet. Desperate to raise revenues, a heavily publicised campaign to persuade people to pay taxes swung into action, headed by the energetic new head of the tax police, Boris Fyodorov.

The government targeted the mighty gas monopoly Gazprom, fiefdom of Mr Kiriyenko's predecessor - and now successor - Mr Chernomyrdin himself. At one point, the government even threatened to seize its assets.

On Friday Mr Kiriyenko appeared before an emergency session, to chivvy the legislature into supporting his new laws.

Having been forced to allow the rouble to devalue, heralding inevitable price rises, and to default on some foreign loans, he knew he was in trouble. The worst was yet to come, he told the chamber, as its members clamoured for his scalp and Mr Yeltsin's. In the end, he was right - in more senses than one.

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